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The Royal Danish Theatre Ballet School
(Royal Danish Ballet School)

by Kate Snedeker

Founded more than two hundred years ago, the Ballet School of the Royal Danish Theatre is one of the oldest ballet schools in Europe, and it remains a unique and inspiring institution. Each year the school provides ballet training and academic education for just 60-70 talented young dancers. It is still the training ground for most of the Royal Danish Ballet dancers, and so the quality of the school is reflected in the successes of the company.

It is the close link with the company that makes the school such a special place. Each new class of dancers train together from an early age, taking class in the same studios as the RDB dancers and performing with them in many ballets. The young dancers are also taught by current and former RDB dancers, one generation passing along knowledge to the next. Thus the school creates an unbroken chain of talent, friendships and tradition.

The Audition: where it all begins…
Students are generally admitted to the school between the ages of 6 and 11, though a few with prior training are accepted at older ages. Most find their way into the school through auditions held each year in mid-March.

Thomas Lund, RDB Principal, says of his audition, "I went home to my mother and I said, well, I want to go to an audition for the Royal Ballet School … And so I came [to the audition] and was accepted to the school. It was actually quite lucky - I think things happen for a reason - it was just a few weeks before [the audition was scheduled] that I got the idea, and it was the last year before I was too old".

March 28, 2004, was the most recent of these auditions, and approximately 200 girls and 25 boys signed up to audition for a coveted spot in the school. What follows is description of that audition day….

With the company dancers on their day off, the studios are eerily quiet, the silence punctuated only by an occasional crackle of noise from the monitors as announcements are made for the opera on Gamle Scene. The auditions are being held in Ny Sal (new studio), where just a day before the company dancers were hard at work in class and rehearsals. Knowing that leading dancers like Thomas Lund and Tina Højlund were first spotted on such a day, one has to wonder what future star might be among this group of hopefuls.

The mats, stray shoes, homeless therabands and other debris of daily ballet life have been pushed aside, and tables laid with piles of paperwork line one side of the mirrored studio. Huddled around the carafes of steaming coffee are the teachers from the school, including company member and deputy director of the school, Niels Balle; Artistic Director Frank Anderson, and the two company doctors.

A little after 9am, the first group of 10-12 children, one of the two groups of boys, are ushered in the door and to a row of seats at the far end of the studio. For the most part, the children seem unconcerned, twisting about into every possible position in the chairs and curiously eyeing each other. A few clearly have some ballet experience, slippers on their feet and eager expressions on their faces, while others seem less than thrilled about the whole experience.

Registration papers sorted out, the teachers lead the children in a large circle, walking in time to the beat of the music provided by one of the company pianists. After a minute or so, the music stops and the boys are then asked to jump in time to yet another simple tune.

Returning to the chairs, they are led, three or four at a time, to waiting mats, where the teachers and company physicians examine turnout, flexibility, feet and back curvature. The teachers slowly make their way through all the boys, those not being examined squirming on their seats in a mixture of boredom and nervousness.

As the last children are examined, the teachers shift to a huddle, where decisions are being made. When a consensus is reached, it’s make or break time for the children. First to be handed out are letters with bad news, then come the ones inviting students back for the four-week mini-school. Most of the boys don’t seem either overjoyed or upset, though one little boy punches the air with his fist, exclaiming, “yes!!” before scampering out of the room.

As one group exits the back door, papers rustling in hand, another group is ushered through the door, ready to fill the recently vacated row of chairs. After another group of young boys, the girls begin, all 204 of them.

Ranging from little six year olds to more awkward and self-conscious eleven year olds, the girls generally seem more aware of the pressure and reality of the situation. Some are returning for their second year, with hope that last year’s bad news might be replaced by an acceptance letter this year. Each group brings a different mix of girls, but most are clad in some shade of pastel, some with real ballet slippers, others with looser satiny slippers and some barefoot. A number of the littler girls show up in little tutus, cute, but a challenge during the physical evaluations. There are more than a few budding gymnasts in the crowds, marked by their competition leotards and solidly muscular physiques.

Each group of girls is asked to do the same circular promenade and jumps as the boys, but the girls are also asked to do a chasses and sometimes another simple step. The teachers encourage the shier children and try to help those having more difficulty with the steps. But it’s mainly about watching. The girls are also examined by the teachers and doctors, with backs checked for flexibility and curve, feet for arch and potential suitability for pointe work, and hips for turnout. Good flexibility, however, doesn’t necessarily get rewarded with a positive letter, as the key to success is not based on any one attribute, but on a combination of factors, and most likely, solidified by a hunch or a feeling that this little girl has what it takes.

One group of girls follows another, and after a quick break for lunch, the seemingly endless flow continues. A few latecomers, who have forgotten about the return to daylight savings times, flesh out the numbers. The passing of time is marked by the increasing number of empty soda bottles in the crates under one of the tables, as the teachers refuel themselves between groups. Finally, after three o’clock, the last little girl exits the room.

Completing the day is the compensation group - older students with previous experience who have been recommended by their current teachers. Few are accepted at this late stage, as the school is limited by size and prefers to mold dancers from their earliest days. This audition, with tension clear in the air, is conducted in the form of a shortened class, with both barre and short center section. In true audition fashion, each dancer wears a number pinned on to leotard or shirt. The 16 girls and two boys are clearly aware of who is gathered at the table in front of them, though nerves, for the most part, are concealed by concentrated expressions. The end result is conveyed promptly and quietly, with two numbers called out, the rest thanked and dismissed.

In the end, 57 girls and 11 boys were selected for the four week intensive course, from which no more than a dozen or two will emerge to become the newest pupils of the school. These students will begin their formal schooling at the beginning of the next school year, in late August.

The School
There are approximately 60-70 students age 6-17 at the RDB school, divided into seven levels by age and ability, with boys and girls taught together until the final level. Since students both dance and study together, every attempt is made to divide classes by age, but it does not always work out this way.

Each day starts out with a morning class, at 8:30 for most students, and 10am or 11am for the youngest students. The schedule runs Monday through Friday until the third grade, when Saturday classes are added.

Thomas Lund describes the life of a student: “You have an hour and half class, and then you shower and have a break for about 40 minutes and you start in the [academic] school around 10:40… some days [you have] afternoon class again from 4:15 until 6. And then if you’re doing a performance at night, you go to the canteen and have dinner and then prepare yourself to be a child on the bridge in 'Napoli' third act or [for another ballet]. [You] maybe do homework during your [breaks] while you’re up in the dressing room. It’s a long day, and it starts early. But, there were also times when certainly you were not in something and then you could focus on your training and your schoolwork”.

Ballet classes are held in the same studios that the company dancers will occupy for classes and rehearsals. Thus, the ballet students not only see the dancers onstage, but also literally rub shoulders with them each day in the studio and the hallway.

Says Tina Højlund, RDB soloist, "It’s a bit like a fairytale when you’re a kid! And what we have here, compared to most other [ballet schools], is that we are part of the performances really, really early on. My first year, I was already part of the performances".

The children perform in a number of the ballets in the company’s repertory. This year, with many Bournonville ballets being danced and the Bournonville Festival coming up, the children are unusually busy. Many children are on the famous bridge in 'Napoli', yet more are trolls, village children and bridesmaids in 'A Folk Tale' and several young boys alternate several roles in 'Anna Karenina'. And of course, 'The Nutcracker' teems with young dancers! As Thomas Lund indicates above, performing makes for a very long day, and the school does its best to spread out the roles and make sure the younger children aren’t up too late. Yet getting to dance alongside the "grown-up" dancers is an incredible experience and allows the children to take in the Bournonville style and to get a very real picture of the career that they are training so intensively for.

Training
With less than 70 students in the school, classes, both dance and academic, are very small. A class for 8 and 9 year olds in the 2nd level may have just four students, while a class for 12-13 year old girls may have five or six. Though the goal of the school is to train dancers for the Royal Theatre stage where Bournonville remains a vital part of the repertoire, specific and intensive training in the style does not begin until the later years of training. Instead the curriculum aims to develop the whole dancer, teaching the basic underlying skills and technique needed to eventually master the Bournonville style, and also provides the dancers with the foundation needed to dance other styles and choreographies.

From the earliest classes, students are taught short combinations of steps so that work is not constrained to repetitions of single steps that would fast lose the attention of young minds. But, also, even in the youngest of classes, the Bournonville imprint is obvious. There is much less “attachment” to the barre than often found in beginning classes, with much attention given to promenading across the room to the music. There is also more footwork - little jumps and steps - than in other ballet classes. The goal is to keep the children involved, motivated and above all enjoying the classes. To do the work that is needed to stay through the years, a young dancer must first enjoy ballet.

The younger dancers, though not immune from the occasional giggle or high spirits, are remarkably focused. They proceed through the daily routines, questioning only a few less common step sequences. The older girls are quiet and very focused, more aware of the pressures of the ballet world and of shrinking class sizes, and much closer to the days when the most painful decisions will be made and the lucky few will be granted apprenticeships.

Academics
Academics, though fit in around the ballet schedule, are also an important part of every student’s life. Each student must stay in school through year 9 or 10, depending upon the timing of their birthdays, the time at which they would begin their apprenticeship. The ballet school is its own entity, though since 1996 it has been a part of the N. Zahle’s School, with most classes held just across the Kongens Nytorv. However, in recent years, classes with more specialized requirements like laboratories for chemistry have been held at the main school, a short bus ride across town. Since the ballet students have their own school, classes are very small, and the school is able to provide extra and/or individualized attention when students are having difficulties or schedules are complicated by rehearsals and extra classes. This focused learning atmosphere can be of great benefit.

“For me it was a very, very good school, not only ballet-wise, but academic-wise because we’re such a small number of kids in each class that the teachers really get to work with you. When I entered the school here, my academic standards were not great, but when I finished my school here, I was very high, over the [average]. They taught me a lot academic-wise and ballet- wise. You learn so much from the school because it’s so full of traditions. You learn a lot about respect for the arts and respect for your older dancers”, says Kristoffer Sakurai of the RDB corps.

"We were not big classes in each different level, so for language classes and stuff like that, [you were] talking a lot more. If you are only 6 people in the class, you get a lot more education", says Thomas Lund.

The academic school also makes use of the vast cultural heritage so close at hand. The children attend opera and play rehearsals, supplementing book learning with real life experience. As part of their education, they also receive instruction in music, art history and ballet history.

Says Lund, “I have good memories from my school [days]. We had a lot fun just enjoying being in the theater and being around the different art forms. For instance, being so privileged to actually read about Shakespeare in school and then going down to watch A Midsummer Night’s Dream or something like that. And I think that’s a special quality that the theater can actually provide to a child in the school”.

It has yet to be seen what effect the new opera house will have on these cultural arrangements.  As with most operas in the new theater, the opportunities will not be so easily accessible, and rehearsals on the new stage may take a larger chunk out of a young dancer’s day. But, with more studio space for the ballet company - much of the opera and theater company infrastructure will be moved the new theater - there will be the opportunity for more flexibility in scheduling children’s classes.

The Realities...
Like the dancers they share studios with, the lives of the ballet students do have a harsh reality. Rehearsals may occupy much of the afternoon, and performances the evening, meaning that homework is done backstage or in the car or train on the way home. Most importantly, however, because the focus of the school is heavily aimed at turning out professional dancers, those who do not keep up with the accepted standard have to be weeded out.

At the end of every year, exams are given to allow the teachers to assess the progress each student has made and to judge whether the progress, or lack there of, is compatible with continuation in the school. Sometimes early talent does not pan out, or puberty brings with it nasty surprises, and occasionally students realize that a ballet career is not what they dreamed of after all.

Leaving the school was once a harsher separation, but things have changed. Lund explains:  “[On the last day of school], you would say goodbye to all your friends and take everything out of your locker. The next day everybody would receive a letter saying if [the school] would like to see you the following year. And so you would call around and you would know if the phone wasn’t picked up, that person probably did not make it. And then you would come back next year - you would be in one school and the friend that didn’t make it would be somewhere else and you probably would meet by Christmas somewhere in a drugstore buying Christmas gifts. That’s a little bit strange.

Now they’ve changed that system so you get that letter before you leave, a week before, two weeks before. You can come in and do class with your friends, you can cry, you can say goodbye to everybody. The [main M. Zahle’s] school is not so far away from here…if they want to, they can start there, and they might have [in their class] some people that were [asked to leave] the year earlier, so then they get to be together with kids who had the same experience. Plus they do sometimes need extras for operas and plays, and they use some of those kids onstage. So even though they’re not with the ballet anymore, they still get a chance to go onstage, to do something”.

Summers and future plans
Unlike in the United States, where serious ballet students spend late winter weekends auditioning for summer intensive programs, students at the Royal Theatre Ballet School are encouraged to take their 7 plus weeks of summer vacation off from ballet. The teachers feel that all students, especially the younger ones, need a break from ballet and that if trained properly during the year, they should not lose in technique or fitness. The school also suggests against outside summer programs because they prefer that young dancers be molded in their hands until they are of apprentice age. At this stage, they are then often encouraged to seek out summer opportunities that will round out their balletic education.

In recent years, the ballet school classes have been supplemented with Pilates, weightlifting and education on nutrition. As in the ballet world in general, more emphasis is being paid to injury prevention and prompt treatment and physiotherapy for any acute or chronic injuries. Next year, regular modern dance classes will be offered for the more advanced students, who now receive a short series of modern classes at one point during the year.

Becoming professional
The school experience ends when students are selected to become apprentices, a transition that usually takes place at age 16. Of the students who begin at the school, perhaps a fourth will make it to this stage. At this point, though they still have a separate class each day, young dancers spend most of their time in company classes and rehearsals. (More info on the apprentice program and the school in general can be found in my interview with Niels Balle.)

Reality mixes with the romance of the performing arts at the Ballet School of the Royal Danish Theatre. The chance to see and dance alongside the ballet stars of today is tempered by the long days, fatigue and harsh realities of the path to becoming a professional ballet dancer. /p>

 

Writer's Note:
Special thanks to Thomas Lund, Tina Højlund, Kristoffer Sakurai and Niels Balle for taking time out of their busy schedules to do the interviews; to Niels Balle, Liselotte and, Christina Nilsson and Henning Albrechtsen for allowing me to observe their classes; to Sus Fris Jørgensen for her extra help during my first few days in Copenhagen; to Frank Andersen; and especially to Sophie Rask Andersen for all of her help in organizing my visit, both before and during my stay in Copenhagen. And thanks to all who endured my terrible Danish pronunciation and helped me find my way through the labyrinthine Opera House buildings!


Edited by Holly Messitt

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