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National College of Dance: An alternative path to pursuing your dance dreams

Brett Morgan (left) with students. Photo by Sarah Candlin.
Brett Morgan (left) with students. Photo by Sarah Candlin.

Any dancer contemplating turning their passion into a career will find it hard to avoid the traditional dream that says you must be chosen for the top national schools. If not…all is lost?

The National College of Dance has shown that the dance world is a bigger and more interesting place than the elitist national ballet companies and associated schools would suggest.

This college, based in Newcastle, has consistently delivered beautiful, high quality dancers who receive offers from around the world. How does the school do this? Again in 2017, 100 percent of the final year students are taking off to follow their dreams in various international companies. 

Brett Morgan and Vicki Brown. Photo courtesy of Brown.

Brett Morgan and Vicki Brown. Photo courtesy of Brown.

Dance Informa turned to National College of Dance Artistic Director Brett Morgan and CEO Vicki Brown about performance culture in general and why any aspiring dancer should consider the College for their professional development.

A selective, wholistic audition

An audition is required to be accepted into the full time dance course at the College, but the style of audition is not the usual brutal, stage-call style of presenting your solos one after another. This college provides a “wholistic” approach, recognising that the student chooses the school, as much as the school chooses the student.

“We invite interested candidates to come and spend the day with us, do the morning class, experience what life would be like at our school,” Morgan explains. “Talk to the students, ask questions, with no strict time frame. Around midday, they present their solos, both contemporary and classical. We want them to understand how the school works and feel the culture. We’ll then have an open discussion regarding their skills and which direction we see as being best for them. These conversations can be tough when students have a certain fixed dream.”

Committed, experienced teachers

National College of Dance in 'Beauty and the Beast'. Photo courtesy of NCD.

National College of Dance in ‘Beauty and the Beast’. Photo courtesy of NCD.

The quality outcomes of the school are closely related to the depth, experience and passion of the teaching staff, who are of top quality, with impressive and varied resumes.

Morgan went through The Australian Ballet School, before dancing with Sydney Dance Company in the era of Graeme Murphy, becoming dance director of the company.

Alongside Morgan is Timothy Gordon, who danced with and choreographed for both The Australian Ballet and international dance companies before joining the National Dance Theatre as ballet master. This is serious experience that is being channelled and shared with the students.

Advantage of being a big fish in a small pond

And when we discuss the compelling consistency of world-class dancers found in regional Australia and Newcastle in particular, Morgan recognises the foundations of excellent training laid in the region by Tessa Maunder and Marie Walton Mahon over a period of more than 50 years. 

Brown highlights the importance of the environment in creating well-grounded dancers in a region where “there is less pressure and stress than might be found in the more competitive capital cities. Lifestyle is definitely a factor; the students are family-based, and there is a strong sense of community and support here in Newcastle.”

Brown adds, “We recognise each dancer’s individual skills and personality, and we discuss developing a certain ‘gutsiness and courage’ so that they can be bold enough to front up at an overseas company, for example. We have students who come from Perth, Sydney and other cities around Australia, because of what we can offer, both culturally and technically.”

Brett Morgan. Photo by Alex Finn.

Brett Morgan. Photo by Alex Finn.

Professional level classes with a variety of influences 

What is taught at the National College of Dance? The depth of professional experience within the teaching staff means classes are set at a high professional level — open classes with a variety of influences, including the Russian influence.

“It’s structured and disciplined but more versatile because we’re focussed on preparing the dancers for a professional career, either following the contemporary stream or the ballet stream,” Brown explains. “The RAD syllabus is only an option in the lower school.”

Accent on choreography

Morgan also highlights what he believes to be the school’s greatest asset — choreography. “We have the resources to teach our students the craft of choreography,” he says. “We get them to choreograph from the beginning of the full time program, which is what they’ll be required to do overseas.”

The graduating students range from 17- 20 years, and over the past seven years since Morgan took on the College Directorship and 10 years since the College started the Professional year, they have had a very high strike rate of placements.

Tapping into global networks

National College of Dance in an Eisteddfod performance. Photo by Winkipop.

National College of Dance in an Eisteddfod performance. Photo by Winkipop.

Such is the reputation of the National College of Dance that burgeoning networks are strengthening across the globe with international schools and companies.

As Brown explains, “It’s nice to see European and US companies recognising our name. We’d like to think that when they go through the 100s of DVDs, they put our students in the ‘A’ pile. In reality, what this recognition and depth of quality means is that students who have a dream to make dance their career can feel confident to stay regional and still have access to excellent career opportunities here in Australia or overseas.”

A personal touch

In terms of auditioning for overseas companies and schools, the process starts with consultation between the individual students and teachers, followed by creating a number of solos. After hours of practice, the dancers are filmed performing their solos, both contemporary and classical, as well as a segment of barre work. The resulting 10- to 20-minute-long DVDs are sent with fingers crossed to the various national and international destinations.

“We have also added the personal touch of an introduction, with the dancer introducing himself/herself, so that the ‘audience’ has an idea of the person as well as technique,” Brown says.

And the class of 2017?  

Dancers were placed across a diversity of dance schools and companies, including in New York, Florida, London and Europe. One favourite destination seemed to be the Elephant in the Black Box Junior Contemporary Company in Madrid, Spain — a kind of Spanish version of the National College of Dance, focussing on contemporary professional development.

For more information on the National College of Dance, visit www.nationalcollegeofdance.com

By Elizabeth Ashley of Dance Informa.

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