The Royal Ballet School has entwined its classical ballet training with choreographic training since the School first opened in 1926 under the name “The Academy of Choreographic Art. The School’s founder, Dame Ninette de Valois, was both a choreographer and the Artistic Director of the emerging Royal Ballet Company, and she dedicated herself to nurturing choreographic talent.
De Valois arranged for the choreographer Leonide Massine to teach dance composition from 1968-71. Then, Richard Glasstone and Kate Flatt taught an initiative based on Massine’s work from 1975-81. And, from 1990-99, Norman Morrice and David Drew continued to shape the School’s choreographic talent.
Here, we’ll explore how The Royal Ballet School’s Choreographic Programme has developed since its early days and look at the choreography opportunities that today’s students enjoy.
The Royal Ballet School’s modernised choreographic programme
In 1999, Gailene Stock launched The Royal Ballet School’s updated Choreographic Programme. In 2018, the School’s Artistic Director Christopher Powney conducted a review to develop this choreographic training further. Powney conducted the review with independent choreographers like David Bintley, Russell Maliphant, Christopher Hampson, Kerry Nicholls, Wayne McGregor, Christopher Wheeldon, and Mikaela Polley. These choreographers concluded that they would further the School’s efforts to nurture students’ creative experiment and expression. They also highlighted the importance of mentoring without the judgement that comes with competitions, especially for younger students.
As a result, the updated Choreographic Programme encourages students to partake in several projects, each designed to inspire creativity, discernment, and choice. Students experience the creative process of choreography by crafting their own routines and seeking inspiration from music education guest workshops and field trips to performances and galleries. The Choreographic Programme also extends into the students’ academic curriculum, during which they examine dance studies with an emphasis on developing choreographic craft.
The reformed Choreographic Programme aims to broaden students’ understanding of the tradition of ballet and new choreographic approaches, focusing both on the Royal Ballet’s heritage and the discovery of new ideas and materials in contemporary ballet.
White Lodge choreographic training
Dr Susie Cooper oversees all choreographic work at White Lodge. She manages weekly development sessions throughout the autumn term to prepare year 7, 8, and 9 students for the Ninette De Valois Emerging Choreographer performance and year 10 and 11 students for the Kenneth Macmillan Emerging Choreographer performance. Both events are performances as opposed to competitions, providing younger students with the opportunity to present their work without competition pressures.
The Ninette De Valois Emerging Choreographer performance, dedicated to the School’s founder, sees students perform for an audience and a panel of ballet experts who offer valuable advice and feedback. Meanwhile, the Kenneth Macmillan Emerging Choreographer performance requires students not only to choreograph their own works but also to organise their rehearsals, select their casts and music, and offer input into the design of costumes and lighting.
Students craft their pieces based on improvisation classes, workshops with guest choreographers, sessions with musicians, and regular meetings to discuss their choreography processes. Students then present their unique pieces to an audience of staff, fellow students, and special guests. Following these performances, the School’s artistic team selects a few student choreographers to develop their pieces further with a mentor and perform their strengthened pieces at professional events.
Upper School choreography training
Upper School first-year students enjoy choreographic training in a series of introductory composition sessions that hone their understanding of time and space, gesture, and improvisation. These sessions also help students create new ideas from ballet principles. Meanwhile, second-year students engage in group work, music education, choreographic craft development, and wider vocabulary development. They also work collaboratively on a themed longer project, which they enter into the Ursula Moreton Emerging Choreographer performance.
Since the Ursula Moreton Emerging Choreographer performance launched in 1973, The Royal Ballet School’s updated Choreographic Programme has seen this contest shift from a competition to more of an opportunity to foster creative experiment and expression. The opportunity now offers students the chance to engage in a mentorship programme with three professional choreographers to create pieces for a spring performance and competition. Some students also receive further mentorship and perform at Opera Holland Park and the Linbury Theatre.
Previous winners of the Ursula Moreton Emerging Choreographer competition include Matthew Hart, Adam Cooper, Jonathan Burrows, Michael Clark, Christopher Hampson, William Tuckett, Cathy Marston, Christopher Wheeldon, and Xander Parish, who are now all professional choreographers.
Choreographing under lockdown
Even during the COVID-19 lockdowns, The Royal Ballet School found ways to enable choreography training. For example, the School invited five international ballet schools (San Francisco Ballet School, Paris Opera Ballet School, Canada’s National Ballet School, The Dutch National Ballet Academy, and The Royal Danish Ballet School) to join them in a lockdown challenge to choreograph routines collaboratively using video-conferencing software.
The choreographer Didy Veldman oversaw the project, which explored the theme of physical restriction. This theme was representative of the physical confinement and lack of space that so many experienced during the pandemic. More than 120 dancers from the mix of schools worked in groups of 6-25, training in different countries and across different time zones. Despite difficulties surrounding the time lag when working with music, finding universally available props, and limited space to choreograph and rehearse, the students managed to choreograph high-quality performances. The Royal Ballet School’s Young Philanthropists sponsored the project.
The Royal Ballet School’s choreographer Alumni
Students who attend The Royal Ballet School train as much in choreography as they do in other aspects of classical ballet. The School has trained many acclaimed choreographers, including Kenneth MacMillan, John Neumeier, John Cranko, Robert North, Jiří Kylián, David Bintley, Russell Maliphant, Ashley Page, Michael Clark, Jonathan Burrows, Christopher Wheeldon, William Tuckett, Mikaela Polley, Christopher Hampson, Alastair Marriot, David Dawson, Alexander Whitley, Cathy Marston, Charlotte Edmonds, and Andrew McNicol.
About The Royal Ballet School
The Royal Ballet School has a rich history as a leading school for classical ballet dancers and choreographers and has trained dancers like Darcey Bussell, Margot Fonteyn, and David Wall. The School welcomes dancers through an audition process that doesn’t take academic ability or personal circumstances into account, and 84% of students receive bursary support to fund their dance training. When dancers complete their training, many go on to perform for The Royal Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet, and other acclaimed dance companies around the world. The Royal Ballet School also offers dance training for young children in primary schools across the UK. Its partnerships with these schools provide the opportunities that so many young people rely on to enjoy ballet training and even go on to train at the school itself.