Ahead of the launch, David Mead spoke about the new programme with Royal Ballet School Head of Training & Access, Mark Annear.
The Royal Ballet School has long had a highly regarded full-time vocational training programme, an excellent pre-vocational programme in the Associates, and a highly regarded schools programme in Primary Steps. The one area it wasn’t involved in was ballet for the recreational dancer. That now changes with the arrival of a new Affiliate Training and Assessment Programme, an alternative to the model of examination-focused study offered by dance societies such as the Royal Academy of Dance and others.
The development of the programme has been led by Annear and Karen Berry, Royal Ballet School Senior Teacher Training Manager. “It’s something we’ve been talking about for a while,” says Annear, who reveals that they were just about ready to launch two years ago, but then were forced to put everything on hold as the pandemic hit.
He explains that the new programme is really an extension of all that the School has been doing in developing how dance is taught, and is rooted in the firm belief that dance training should continually be updated in all areas, including the recreational sector. As such, the programme’s aim is not only to keep pace with advances in pedagogy and educational theory, but in doing so to ensure the art form continues to thrive.
In particular, the Affiliate Training and Assessment Programme empowers recreational dance teachers by giving them the responsibility for guiding and assessing their own students’ learning.
In terms of content, Annear explains that while there is a programme of study and expected learning outcomes, and technique that the student will be expected to understand and be able to perform at each level, there are no set syllabi, no set exercises or dances to be learned and performed, and no external examinations with examiners visiting schools.
Rather, enchainments will be put together by the Affiliate teacher, who will also conduct the assessments and decide the grade. A video will then be sent for monitoring and moderation of results by Royal Ballet School staff.
Besides ballet technique, students at all levels will also be assessed on repertoire, choreography and appreciation. “It’s the way Associates works; it’s the way full-time training programmes work in all schools. It’s just that we are now doing it at a recreational level,” says Annear.
“What we want to do is put the emphasis back into the training and not into the end result. It’s all based around learning outcomes and criteria. It’s about the process and moving forward as educators. We use the analogy, when you’re learning maths, you don’t just learn the answers to the twenty questions you are going to have in the maths exam at the end of the year. Why should dance be different?”
The new programme will also allow teachers to train at the pace that the students need, he says. And instead of having to plan months ahead and arrange for examiners to come to their school, they can do the assessment when the students are ready.
Annear outlines that there are three levels for primary age students: Level 1 being recommended for age 6 to 8, Level 2 for 8-10 and Level 3 from age 10. “But you could start Level 1 at 8. It’s not prescriptive. They are recommended starting ages. And the levels are progressive.”
Levels 4 to 6 then cater for secondary school ages, from 11 to 16+, with enhanced content available for students who want to take on a bit more intensive training. “Perhaps they are thinking of pre-vocational or vocational training. So, there’s that option,” he says.
Although the focus is on the 6 to 18-year-old age group, Annear sees no reason why teachers could not take the model and adapt it to recreational adult training too. “It’s something we may consider doing in the future but we are starting small and just focusing on this bit at the moment.”
The guidelines for the repertoire and the creative practice are still being worked on but are being based on work that’s done in education, including what The Royal Ballet School does in Primary Steps. “It’s called a three-strand model. It’s about learning the technique and doing some performing, appreciation and creation.”
Affiliate teacher training will be delivered via a mix of in-person training, virtual webinars and video content distributed via The Royal Ballet School Video on Demand platform. For the repertoire, Annear explains that the School is linking up with The Royal Ballet through their Creative and Learning Programme and with Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Learning, Engagement, Access and Participation teams. Teachers at the School with experience of delivering creative tasks for different age groups will similarly be called upon.
“We will expand on what is there. All the practice is out there but we are drawing it all together into one package and putting it into the recreational sector where it hasn’t previously been.”
Annear is adamant that the new programme is not an attack on the traditional exam system. He says the School has been very open with the societies and has had conversations with them prior to the launch.
“I think there’s always going to be a place for exams. Some teachers will want to do it, some students will want to do it, some parents will still want their children to do exam-based work. However, we do feel there’s an alternative and that teachers should always have the tools to do something else. This is about giving them those tools. We don’t feel it will suit everyone but there are teachers out there who want an alternative. They want to be able to provide training for their students that really helps them develop, not just in the technical side but in other areas of the art form as well. They might even want to do assessments through the programme and exams. We see them as complimentary. It’s not an ‘either or’.”
Applications for the first cohort of Affiliate Teachers will open in March 2022. The three-stage selection process has been designed to ensure that standards, and that the status of The Royal Ballet School are maintained. Teacher training will commence online and in person at The Royal Ballet School in July. There will be ongoing training and support to help teachers deliver the programme, which includes a series of ambassadors who will can go out and do a technique, repertoire or creative workshop.
In saying how thrilled he was to see the new programme come to fruition, Christopher Powney, Artistic Director at The Royal Ballet School, observed how it is long established that supporting children to understand how to learn, and to value and enjoy the process, builds stronger foundations and has far-reaching benefits. “The Royal Ballet School’s Affiliate Training and Assessment Programme is the first to apply these principles to a recreational ballet training programme. This truly is ground-breaking and a necessary evolution. I believe it will bring untold rewards, with students supported and nurtured to become happy, resilient young people with the curiosity and confidence to shape their own paths.”
In expressing his pleasure at the launch of the programme, Kevin O’Hare, Artistic Director at The Royal Ballet, emphasised the importance of pushing the boundaries of ballet and reflecting the times in which we live, including in education and training. Carlos Acosta, Director of Birmingham Royal Ballet is equally delighted, saying that the programme “will open up access to ballet training and foster an understanding and appreciation for ballet as an art form in young people across the world.”
I’ll put my hand up straight away. I have long had concerns about ballet exams and how the material is sometimes taught. That there was an alternative in ballet was brought home to me when I first ran across ABT’s National Training Curriculum a few years ago, and was able to talk to its programme designers and watch some teacher training while in New York. That programme is similar in that while the learning criteria for each level are set out, teachers set their own assessments. It is entirely about technique however, and has a less stringent selection process for teachers than will the Royal Ballet School.
I do accept that traditional ballet exams can have value, though. They do give children something to aim for and are one way of demonstrating learning and achievement, although whether that’s of anything more than the exam material is sometimes more questionable. Anecdotally (and I’ve been there too), I do hear of schools where classes are exclusively exam work, to exam music, week after week after week, where teachers claim that, in the time they have, there’s no room for anything else.
While exams can be an enriching part of a student’s ballet journey, they are only part of that journey and are in no way a necessity. They can offer an invigorating challenge that a student responds to but if taught or used in the wrong way, they can also lead students to quit. Dance is not, and should never be, all about the exam.
The benefits of the new Royal Ballet School programme are obvious. It does put students at the centre of the learning process. It accepts that they are individuals who quite likely have different learning needs and respond best to different teaching styles. While still ensuring consistency of quality (in fact, the selection process may well ensure very high quality across the board), it gives teachers far greater autonomy in delivering training and what their young dancers need.
The widening of training to include appreciation, repertoire and creative work acknowledges that ballet is about far more than technique. Such a holistic approach can surely only help the development of young people as artists who can express themselves as individuals, who can enjoy and appreciate the art form in context and as a whole.
The programme may be slow to gain wide acceptance. The exam-culture is deeply ingrained in ‘local’ ballet schools and teachers in particular, probably more so than in the youngsters they teach. So, I suspect some, perhaps many, will be very resistant; initially at least. Some will no doubt see this as an attack on the established ballet and dance societies. Some will throw their hands up in horror, at the thought of creative work (often perceived as difficult to teach) in particular. There will be those who say this is fine for full-time training but cannot possibly be made to work in local dance schools. I beg to differ.
But whether you think exams are the way to teach and learn or not, surely choice is good; and not choice between traditional exam organisations, but real choice in learning. The Royal Ballet School’s new programme offers that alternative or, if schools wish and can timetable it, complimentary learning to be done alongside the traditional exam. The Royal Ballet School’s new Affiliate Training and Assessment Programme should be welcomed by anyone who loves ballet. Something like it is long overdue.