“There was plenty of good dancing to be seen in England in 1920,” starts the brochure that was produced to celebrate the RAD’s 75th birthday back in 1995. It goes on to note that “English dancers were not, however, famous throughout Europe,” and that there might be more that were technically excellent and with great stage presence if the country possessed better teachers.
So, what is now the Royal Academy of Dance was established. Today, with a membership stretching across in 92 countries, it is one of the largest dance education and training organisations in the world. That initial aim of improving standards and reinvigorating dance training continues. While it continues to have an important teacher training programme, it is today perhaps best known for its examination syllabi, taught to thousands of young people worldwide, with around a 250,000 pupils per year going on to take RAD examinations.
In celebration of its centenary, the RAD has joined with the V&A to co-curate a free exhibition in the museum’s Theatre and Performance galleries: On Point: Royal Academy of Dance at 100. The Academy has always had strong links to professional dance. It its early days, it was very closely bound with the development of ballet in England. It is no surprise therefore to find that the display of 60 original objects, over 80 archival images and film footage from both the RAD and V&A archives that is spread across three rooms as much tells early history of English ballet as the Academy itself.
In addition to exploring key moments in dance history, the displays show how the RAD’s reach has expanded to now include such initiatives as Silver Swans, a programme for the over-55s, and Project B, which is designed to widen access for boys to dance. But it is the historical items that are of most interest, most of which date from the 1950s and before.
Everyone will find something that particularly appeals to them. Among my personal favourites are Claude Lovat’s designs for Nursery Rhymes, a ballet created by Tamara Karsavina in 1921 for her own company, in which Karsavina herself danced three roles including Little Jumping Joan. I didn’t spot it in the exhibition, which is a shame, but I like the review in The Times of January 4th that year that described her as “not the Jumping Joan who used to appear in rather a smudged condition in the woodcuts of the old chapbooks, but a Jumping Joan who spent her life jumping as though it really appealed to her.”
There are drawings and photographs related to many other ballets long since lost. The RAD’s founding president was Adeline Genée and it’s only natural that she is prominent among the images displayed.
My favourite costume design in the exhibition is one of hers, a relatively simple affair from The Dryad, a 1915 ballet by Dora Bright. For incredibly detailed on the other hand, look no further than that for her own A Dream of Butterflies and Roses.
The exhibition is a reminder of how many ballets have been lost from that time. There were also some, what now seem pretty odd subjects too. My Lady Nicotine, was a 1905 ballet choreographed by Lucia Cormani that celebrated the joys of smoking and that had scenes set in Virginia, the Middle East and the Netherlands, for example.
The presidents who followed Genée, Margot Fonteyn, Antoinette Sibley and Darcey Bussell are also all prominently represented, along with other leading figures who were close to the organisation.
Among the items related to Fonteyn is a film that, until recently, was hidden in the RAD archives. From 1972, it shows her introducing and explaining the principles behind a new ballet syllabus she had helped to create with a group of RAD teachers. Before the young children demonstrate the exercises, she is heard asking, “Are you all going to dance nicely this afternoon?” The RAD never released the film for financial reasons at the time, which explains how it remained unseen for so long.
There is also a film of her watching high jumpers and hurdlers demonstrating what they had learned from a 1950s collaboration between the Academy and the Amateur Athletic Association, who wondered if ballet exercises could help athletes improve their elevation. The published pamphlet showing the exercises developed that includes artwork by Punch illustrator Fougasse, famed for his ‘Careless talk Costs Lives’ Second World War posters, is also on display.
“A syllabus is a scrap of paper. It can only come to life by use of the imagination.”
A note to teachers from an early syllabus displayed in the exhibition and that remains as true today as then; and to which should surely be emphasised, ‘the imagination of both the teacher and the student’.
Elsewhere there is the Harlequin figure sculpted by Alfred Gilbert (also responsible for Eros at Piccadilly Circus), given by Stanislas Idzikowski to the RAD ‘Production Club’. Established in the early 1930s, this aimed to provide a link between the student and professional worlds, mounted performances of new choreography, and is credited for offering famed choreographers Robert Helpmann and John Cranko their first opportunities in the industry.
Costumes on show include Rudolf Nureyev’s for Swan Lake, designed by Carl Toms in 1963 for a production by The Royal Ballet; and Darcey Bussell’s for Kenneth MacMillan’s Prince of the Pagodas. Coming almost right up to date, there’s even the pointe shoes worn by current president Darcey Bussell in Song of the Earth at her Royal Ballet farewell performance in 2007.
While On Point: Royal Academy of Dance at 100 is undoubtedly an exhibition of much appeal and interest, especially to anyone fascinated by dance history, it does suffer from the perennial problem of how to capture the essence of what is a live art form in static objects. The films help, but I am not convinced it is quite there. It’s a shame the space available and present restrictions do not lend themselves to more immersive and interactive possibilities.
Overall, the curators have done a good job, though. The exhibition certainly illustrates well the context in which the RAD was born. Of course, there is much more I would like to have seen: more of the Academy’s recent history, about the Academy itself, film of Genée competitions maybe, a comparison of early and recent syllabi perhaps, although I accept that might not of been of general interest. Maybe I just missed them but I also didn’t spot the excellent short film, Royal Academy of Dance: 100 years in 100 seconds or any of the RAD Voices films that feature the thoughts of people from the past and present who have shaped the Academy, although they are all on the it’s YouTube channel. Perhaps I’m just greedy, though. There is only so much space, and a hundred years is a lot of history to cram into three rooms.
On Point: Royal Academy of Dance at 100 is in the V&A’s second floor Theatre and Performance Gallery until September 19, 2021. Admission free, although timed entry tickets need to be booked in advance.