30 years on, but still cutting edge: The McDonald College

McDonald College

“I’m the luckiest person in the world, I love coming to work every day,” says Maxine Kohler. “The people – students and staff – are fantastic.”

Maxine is the Principal of The McDonald College, one of Australia’s premier training institutes for the performing arts. With a background in classical ballet, she never wanted to be on the stage herself, but preferred seeing what the arts could do for others. It was this passion that drove her to co-found the College in 1984. Originally a centre for classical ballet, it has now grown to encompass seven different streams, including musical theatre, music, dance – and even elite tennis.

Each year, young people come from all over Australia to Sydney, to audition for a spot at the College, for a chance to spend their school days doing what they love most. Those lucky enough to be enrolled in the secondary school train for two hours every day, with their academic studies fitting in around their chosen fields.

This means that the days are longer than they would be at a ‘normal’ school, but Maxine says the students adore coming in as much as she does; knowing that they get to go to music or dance class gives them the motivation to get through their academic studies.

McDonald College

The McDonald College Premier State Ballet Company. Photo courtesy of McDonald College.

“The reason we’ve been so successful is that the children are happy,” she explains. “I hear it all the time; students saying ‘it’s the first time in my life I’ve fitted in somewhere’.”

Being able to follow a passion for performance whilst keeping academic options open is critical to the philosophy of the College, Maxine says. “When [students] cut off their academic education, they are stifling their development and also compromising their future.”

Last year, former staff and students came from around Australia and the world to celebrate 30 years of the College, and toast to its remarkable ongoing success. Graduates of the dance streams are working everywhere, from The Australian Ballet, the Royal New Zealand Ballet and the Birmingham Royal Ballet to international musicals such as Dirty Dancing, Les Miserables, Blood Brothers and Wicked. Students have also gone on to complete their dance training at The Royal Ballet School, The Australian Ballet School and almost any training establishment you could think of in Europe.

But the thing that Maxine is most proud of, she says, is that the school is a “haven” for creative performers. “Just to watch them blossom is a real thrill, particularly the kids who have been struggling somewhere else. It’s wonderful to see.” 

The College moved into its current premises in 1999, after purchasing the site from Telstra. Once the home of huge old telephone exchanges, the building was actually the perfect fit for dance studios. In fact, visitors to the school now would be forgiven for thinking the facilities were purpose-built.

“When we came over and looked at it… we were in awe, saying ‘look at these dance studios’,” laughs Maxine.

There are ten dance studios now; large rooms with high ceilings, natural light, viewing windows, sprung floors, barres, mirrors, Tarkett and air conditioning. “They are fabulous facilities and we were very lucky to find them.”

McDonald College

Winner of the Prix de Lausanne Harrison Lee. Photo by Gregory Batardon.

Besides the dance studios, of course, there are six studios for drama, six for music and a separate recording studio – not to mention three science labs and the classrooms. Located right next to Sydney’s North Strathfield train station, Maxine says that the “students arrive, walk along the platform, and straight onto our property.”

The next phase of development for the College is the construction of a new boarding house, the biggest building project in the school’s history. Maxine and her team are also in the process of developing a a film, TV and animation course, as well as a formal technical course, encompassing facets such as lighting, sound and set design. Further to that, she’d like to develop a classical music stream to complement the contemporary one the College currently offers. And there’ll be a full IT stream, too.

Maxine laughs when I suggest she is trying to take over the world: “Bring it on.” 

But the long-term vision? “Ensuring the education we’re delivering is cutting edge, in both performing arts and academic.” And continuing the spirit of nurturing and openness cultivated by the school.

“I just love watching the children blossom into confident, well-educated young performers and young adults…. in an environment where they feel understood and valued for their unique differences. I love seeing what performing arts gives to all the students, whether they’re going to be performers or whether it’s just taking them into the next stage of their journey in life.”

By Rain Francis of Dance Informa.

Photo (top): Winner of the Prix de Lausanne Harrison Lee. Photo by Gregory Batardon.

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