You don't have to train overseas!

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Save your coins and train local, Matthew Lawrence advises. 

I was 10 years old, the year was 1986, the place was Auckland. According to British Ballet Organisation examiner, a tough Miss P. Wilson, I displayed, “Excellent breadth of movement and placing” for my Grade 5 Operatic Ballet Educational Section. I did not remember singing – just ballet – but no fear, the result was Honours.

The report also carried a promising appendage: “Excellent possibilities”.  What did this mean? Could it be that I had the

potential to be professional? But how could this be fulfilled in New Zealand or Australia? Here we come Royal Ballet School (RBS) audition in London!

Thirty-five years on, and our perception of ballet institutions has not changed much: Australasia’s okay, but overseas is better. In my day, the RBS’s White Lodge, leading to the Upper School – and pathway to the Royal Ballet companies – was the premiere preference and main option. These days, there is a plethora of highly vaunted overseas options open to foreigners for elite ballet training for pupils as young as 11 upwards, such as the coveted Paris Opera Ballet School; Bolshoi Ballet Academy; Vaganova Ballet Academy; School of American Ballet; Canada’s National Ballet School; John Cranko School; San Francisco Ballet School … et al.

My overseas White Lodge dream was quickly quashed by the exorbitant fees, which were relatively not unlike today’s; currently £34,575 for full board, per year, for international students (in contrast to £2,757 for government-subsidised UK students). For the whole eight years training (five at White Lodge, three in the Upper School), unless you were silver spoon, or happen upon a rare scholarship, it was not a viable option. It was certainly not for me, a lad from a working-class family, which was more wooden spoon (which, with three naughty boys, proved to be a rather handy multi-functional utensil!).

I continued dancing at my local ballet school, Patricia Rowley’s School of Dance, taking two ballet classes a week, until I was eighteen. Past the age of 11, I never went in competitions. However, I was fit and naturally competitive from playing first grade cricket, soccer and athletics. After gaining my university entrance, I was tempted to follow every man and his dog into a generic Bachelor of the Arts degree. However – fortuitous timing – a new full-time ballet school had recently opened in my neighbourhood, the Auckland City Dance Centre (now sadly closed), which I joined for half a year, before a successful video audition ushered me into the Australian Ballet School’s second year.

Travelling overseas to Melbourne, aged 18, to join already established friends at the ABS, was scary but liberating, as I was ready for the independence. I lived on the cheap, sharing a flat for $100 a fortnight, and living off $50 a week … I just about survived, although several times the pantry was empty, apart from a block of “home brand” compound cooking chocolate (which was cheaper than Cadburys). 

My story, of coming to full-time training late and scrapping by on the cheap, was rare
but not unheard of in my day. In Australasia today, with the expansion of full-time courses, students train harder, younger. There is increasing financial pressure for parents, as well as myriad full-time school options available, both home and away, making decisions hard. So, what is best for your child now?

Training in the United Kingdom, Europe, Russia or the Americas has become increasingly popular amongst antipodeans. Such a move carries a certain perceived status and an assumption of future success. However, it is a rare child who, at age 14, 15 or even 16 to 17, has the emotional maturity to survive in a foreign country without parental support, let alone a child at a younger age! Long-distance overseas training sojourns rarely end well. Mum and dad are often left picking up the emotional and financial pieces.

The modern advent of social media has further fuelled the popularity of overseas studies – “Look at me, look at me, I’m doing my grand jeté in front of the Eiffel Tower!” (Hashtag, Kath Day Night!). As have competitions. The winners gain scholarships to the best schools, and the best schools are overseas. Really? And to gain this first place, you must train harder, younger. The Youth America Grand Prix documentary, First Position (2011), perfectly illustrates this worrying trend. Talented dancers are increasingly facing premature burnout.

In my opinion, competitions are beneficial for additional performance and training experience, but that is where it ends, as syllabus should always take precedence.

I also believe that the increasing popularity of competitions has created an unusual side product: the over-involved, zealot parent. This further restricts the child’s independence and ability to cope when left to their own means at their isolated school abroad.

Every successful dancer has a different journey. Often, they become successful not because of where they trained, but how they trained. Struggle and single-mindedness can be a determinant of future accomplishment. Sure, some current stars have won competitions, but many have not. Some dancers are more artists than technicians, which is harder to measure with a gold medal. 

My advice for parents is: as tempting as the thought may be to some, there is no need to send your child on a transoceanic journey to a foreign training institution. Particularly during a global pandemic, it is not worth the worry. Luckily, we have excellent home-grown options in our own backyard, from privately-owned ballet schools to the leading state-funded schools, such as the ABS, Queensland Ballet Academy and New Zealand School of Dance, all producing world-class dancers. If I could do it, with my pointy feet and a little grit, so can anyone. Save your coins and train local!

Matthew Lawrence is a former principal artist with the Australian Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet and Queensland Ballet. He is currently Ballet Master at the Queensland Ballet.

This article first appeared in the April/May/June issue of Dance Australia. Never miss an issue! Subscribe here.

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