The dream of becoming a performer is not uncommon. After all, we live in a celebrity obsessed culture. At some point, almost all of us fantasise about stardom. It is often said, however, that the thing that makes real performers stand out from mere dreamers can be detected at an early age.
Whatever you call that quality – talent, focus, determination – Australia’s leading performing arts college for school age kids (years three through 12) is once again on the hunt for it. On June 2, The McDonald College in Sydney, will hold one of its twice yearly auditions for students wanting to enrol in their ballet, dance, music theatre, music and acting streams.
Founded in 1984, and modelled on England’s famed Elmhurst Ballet School, The McDonald College is Australia’s only genuinely performing arts-focused primary/high school. Students work a minimum of two hours a day on their chosen art in and around regular academic subjects. They take part in both on- and off-campus productions, and they have the opportunity to further practise their skills at corporate and community events.
Yet what really marks McDonald out from the crowd is not so much the “talent intensive” but instead the underlying culture. As a founding council member and long serving Principal, Maxine Kohler describes the college’s USP as being that “we really do honour and respect the kids’ passion for performance.” Further to that, McDonald’s ethos is far more encouraging of difference than we might typically expect from a regular school.
“These kids feel they need a special environment where they are understood,” Kohler adds. “They’re creative. They’re very different, and they don’t really fit a normal mould of another school. They’re obviously very active and driven, and have clear goals at a very young age. Now, those goals can change of course, and that’s fine; so we try to provide not only the skills and the technical training but also the environment where they can just be who they are.”
For any parents wondering if this equates to a laissez faire attitude, it is worth remembering that the school requires more of its students’ daily time, and that at the heart of performance art sits a solid discipline. Indeed, according to The McDonald College’s Director of Performing Arts Peter Kraft, there is no shortage of work for aspiring artists to stay busy with. “Throughout the year, every one of our streams will do at least one production on campus, often more, and then they all combine for what we call our high performance season, which is held off campus,” he outlines. “They go through the hard work in class, all their technical work preparing for it, but I guess it’s the performance that’s the really special outcome, the nice bit where you get the round of applause and the recognition.”
Although it began as a ballet-focused school, The McDonald College has always had one eye on the brutal realities of dance, the arts and high performance. “Their academic is very important because, let’s be honest, how many are actually going to make it at that high level they aspire to?” Kohler says. “You’re going to have to pay the bills at some stage in your life, so don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”
From a purely dance perspective, of course, there is a sound duty of care reason not to ignore the academic. Recalling the inspiration for setting up the college, Kohler explains, “We started because we wanted ballet dancers to have the option of getting an academic education, as well as dance. You know, at a full time dance school, there’s lots of wasted time, and also you can’t work physically six, seven hours a day. It’s not possible, and neither should it be; their bodies are young and developing.”
Academia and arts aside, McDonald’s focus on the personal qualities and core skill sets of elite performance has seen it graduate an alumni list that includes Amanda McGuigan from The Australian Ballet, Prix de Lausanne winner Harrison Lee and Emma Watkins from The Wiggles. Kohler is also keen to point out that ex-students include pilots, animal chiropractors and even Masterchef competitors.
When it comes to auditions and enrolments, though, McDonald is not simply looking to cherry pick the exceptional and precocious. “We want to see you having a go,” reveals Kraft. “Demonstrate to us that you’re happy to put yourself out there in a situation that may be foreign to you; because we can work with any student who’s willing to have a go.”
As Kraft points out, students can audition for any or all of the artforms that interest them because the focus is on capability and passion, not technical perfection. “We ask them to show us what they can do,” he states. “So, if they make a mistake and they can’t do something, that’s completely fine because if we have a whole heap of students at the college who can do everything already well, then really, what’s the point of us being here?”
Here again, the school’s driving ethic comes into clear focus. “Not everybody is going to be a performer,” Kohler concludes, “but here they’re in an environment where they’re valued for their difference and diversity. It’s certainly not a cookie cutter school.”
For more information on The McDonald College and its upcoming audition on August 18, visit www.mcdonald.nsw.edu.au.
By Paul Ransom of Dance Informa.