Live, Dance, Learn – the three words that Elmhurst Ballet School believe is what sums up the experience students have when passing their audition to study at the world-renowned school. In association with Birmingham Royal Ballet, it is a school that boasts excellence in its training, care and facilities.
I was lucky enough to explore the school and find out what they are offering for students who wish to embark on a career in dance. Based in the centre of Birmingham, a city that is a cultural hub for the arts, not only is the location outstanding but the building itself is impressive. Newly built in 2004 after relocating from London, with a refreshed look and the introduction of new principal Jessica Wheeler who joined in 2010, the school has gone from strength to strength.
Offering teaching from year seven to thirteen, the students experience a huge amount of high-quality classical ballet training alongside their regular school subjects. Principal Jessica Wheeler came from a dance background herself, but after suffering a tough injury she took her hand to teaching. After experiences all kinds of mainstream schools, including being part of a team that turned around the worst performing school in London, she has used this knowledge to really build a strong career for herself as a teacher. Perhaps it is her warm personality and determination that allows her to really excel as a headteacher.
“I was initially attracted to the school because of the students, and the building is so beautiful and fabulous, but really the students and the committed staff team. The students sell themselves as they are so engaged, so focused and they just really want to be here,” Jessica explained. Which is something I noticed when sitting in on a few of the classes. I found myself mesmerised by the year eight girls class, as their discipline and concentration is like nothing I’ve seen in a child before. Their passion and love for dance is evident through their sheer ability to concentrate and really apply themselves to each lesson.
Sitting down with graduates Jade Wallace and Hamish Scott, allowed me to really gain an insight into life at Elmhurst and how it has prepared them for the industry. Both dancing from a tiny age, they auditioned for the school alongside other huge ballet schools around the country, and have now found themselves growing up and really finding themselves in the company.
Jade Wallace was one of the five finalists in BBC Young Dancer 2017 in the ballet category this year, and previously Hamish got down to the final four – a tremendous triumph for both the dancers and the school. “It was a great performance opportunity and great exposure – it’s a really high calibre competition,” Jade said.
Hamish has also spent a lot of time dancing with their associates Birmingham Royal Ballet and even went on three tours with them, allowing him to gain real industry experience. He explained: “I was lucky enough to rehearse with them for a few weeks and take class there. The main thing I learnt was about bridging that gap – we are very well taken care of here and it is about translating your skills into a company, you have to be able to take correction, take instruction and be really quick.”
The students are constantly being assessed and can be ‘assessed out’ if they aren’t performing to the standard required. Which puts pressure on the students to keep working hard and have that determination to keep improving. “They do try to replicate what it is like in the industry in school,” Hamish said. Jade emphasised the school’s ability to really prepare you for the industry: “We’re given performance experience and the past few years we have been at the Rep theatre in Birmingham. Having a chance to perform on a larger stage definitely prepares you, and being assessed all the time prepares you to always be at your best and for auditions of course – not to mention the excellent classical training which ultimately makes you employable.”
Artistic Director of the school Robert Parker introduced a lot of this to the school. After dancing with Birmingham Royal Ballet for around twenty years, he said: “I think it is extremely important for the school to have its association with Birmingham Royal Ballet as you have that wealth of experience from the industry coming into the school.” With guest teachers frequently coming in who are currently dancing with the company, it allows the students to learn the company’s current repertoire. Robert added: “Growing up with the knowledge of that repertoire – people like Sir Peter Wright and David Bintley’s work, I think it is so important that they have that as it is the world that they will be graduating into.
The link with the company is paramount and also a great selling point for the school – particularly from an international perspective. When people are given that opportunity to work alongside the company in Birmingham and going tour nationally and internationally it allows you to really learn your craft, rub shoulders with the professionals and really get immersed into what it takes to be an industry professional.”
When arriving at the school Robert liaised with the staff and with company directors from all over the world, to find out what they were looking for. “The physical demands of a dancer today are just huge and way beyond anything I experienced as a dancer,” he said. “The directors of these huge companies are asking for more physicality so that is what we put into place in order to train the students.”
“I think we are very forward thinking as a school and very progressive.” Artistic Director Robert Parker
Elmhurst uses its training and care to build the strongest performer both mentally and physically. “We want them to take ownership of their own learning by looking after themselves,” said Robert. ” We have introduced a lot of student-led events to give a holistic approach to theatre itself.” As well as introducing a graduate showcase, providing performance experience in a large theatre, they also want the students to still feel as if they are at school and give them the chance to experience many things. Which led to the creation of ‘enrichment Fridays’ involving every Friday afternoon to be taken up with an activity such as art class, cooking, yoga and more.
“Ultimately we are here because we are a ballet school but if the health and wellbeing wasn’t good enough, or the academic wasn’t good enough then that isn’t good enough for the kids.” – Principal Jessica Wheeler
The health and wellbeing of the students are really at the forefront of the school’s vision. Recently opening their new Health and Wellbeing Centre, it offers the students an onsite doctor, counselling and physio – putting parents minds at ease and allowing the students to really feel looked after and cared for. Jessica described this as her proudest achievement at the school because after suffering her injury she found herself feeling really depressed and with a huge lack of emotional support.
Jade Wallace was gutted to have become injured but found the support of the school remarkable. “I’ve had a whole team of people working to help with my rehab and recovery. The school team have teamed up with BRB so I’ve had so many physios assessing me and had a whole strength and conditioning program put in place and I’ve learnt about cross training. Now I already feel stronger than I did before I was fully dancing,” she said.
With graduates going into profound companies across the world, it’s a school with a strong reputation for its classical training and world-class graduates. With their upcoming graduate gala that will showcase a piece by David Bintley titled Comic Cuts. There is an abundance of fresh, dynamic dancers graduating from Elmhurst who will embark on their careers to be the dancers of the future.