Many a talented Australian ballet student has gone overseas in pursuit of their dreams only to have the dream unravel — after all, carving out a sustainable and fulfilling career as a professional dancer is tough. Australian dancers have it particularly hard, as their isolation from cultural centres in Europe and the Americas, where many of the most exciting dance opportunities await, can make it difficult to develop the insider knowledge required to thrive internationally.
Xanthe Geeves, artistic director of the newly-launched Sydney College of Dance (SCD), remembers well the difficulties of bridging the gulf between the student and professional mindset. She moved from Australia to Germany to take up a full-time scholarship at the age of 17. “It was a huge adjustment,” she recalls. “Not only did I know no one, I had to learn a new language. My Japanese wasn’t very helpful in Germany! The expectation of the school was that I would be responsible for my own living conditions, although support was there if I needed it. They treated me as an adult and expected absolute professionalism.”
She credits the development of her own personal style and professional maturity for her overseas successes and is determined to help students at SCD find their own unique artistic voice. “At this level, the standard of technique is high, but inner confidence and artistry in a crowd draws a director’s eye,” Geeves says.
It is a passion she shares with fellow SCD Director Gregor Thieler, who adds, “If you can develop your own artistic voice, and even contribute through collaboration to the creation of choreographic works, you help other choreographers to see that potential in you to be part of the creative process. It’s very much about collaboration now, so if you’re able to do that, to understand even at a young age what movement is, what the nature and intent of a particular movement is, then a lot of opportunities will come your way. You will stand out.”
Thieler and Geeves champion a holistic view of their students as individuals with specific talents and challenges. They see themselves as mentors equipping the next generation of dancers with the knowledge and skills they need to fulfil their artistic potential – and, just as importantly, to help others recognise it. “There is so much more to career preparation than just perfecting steps,” Thieler says. “You need specific training to work in a choreographic way and gain the skills to contribute to the choreographic process.”
At SCD, they aim to combine this kind of international expertise and guidance with excellent support systems to provide the best possible environment for emerging Australian dancers to develop into world-class artists. It is an intense program, and full-timers can expect up to 20 classes per week, plus private coaching and rehearsals/performances. Students are also individually prepared for assessments, RAD exams, professional school and company auditions, scholarships, and national competitions and international competitions such as the Prix de Lausanne and Genée International Ballet Competition. Students are, however, introduced to these demands in an appropriate, progressive manner. “The majority of injuries for young dancers occur in the first year of full-time dance, and that’s partly because of the increase in the load of training,” says Thieler. “It’s very important to us that we take care of our young dancers to promote their healthy growth in becoming really highly-skilled artists, not just ones overloaded with a lot of training all at once and taking on challenges they’re not ready for yet.”
Unsurprisingly, both Geeves and Thieler emphasise the development not only of an excellent classical technique but also an adaptable technique as is required by many European and American companies. “The repertoire in companies is so diverse these days, and it’s ranging from traditional ballet to contemporary,” says Thieler. “It’s very important to have that exposure to different styles early. That’s true if you want to get into a company which is looking for particularly versatile dancers, but even outside of that there are a lot of different companies in Europe merging, particularly in Germany, so this is very hard for dancers who have only trained in classical with a bit of contemporary on the side or vice versa. But if you can fit right into the up-to-date works, it’s a huge advantage — there are more chances career-wise. But also, it’s more exciting as a dancer to be open-minded.”
Originally from Germany, Thieler notes that this has been the trend for some time and is grateful to a number of German masters for exposing him to diverse styles as a young dancer. These experiences, he says, helped him to take advantage of a wide range of professional opportunities throughout his career. “I was dancing very traditional ballet and then I was dancing, sometimes in the same week, very, very contemporary piece. I feel strongly that you need to know how to prepare your body and mind for that.”
He and Geeves are gratified by the number of former students who have credited their success overseas to the formative training and development they received with the pair and their devoted staff. “It’s really wonderful to hear from the students themselves that a lot of things we value are confirmed by them, that what we want to give our students is really taken on by them,” Thieler says.
Indeed, many students from their part-time school, Ballet Academy Northside, have already joined their bridging program, APP Transition, launched earlier this year. The program will now run under SCD alongside the full-time program. With the support of Geeves, Thieler and the staff, they and their peers at SCD will hopefully go on to inspire others with their artistry before returning to support the talents of a new generation of young Australian dancers, just as their mentors did before them.
To find out more about the Sydney College of Dance, visit www.sydneycollegeofdance.com.
To hear from SCD dancer and winner of the Sydney Eisteddford 2017, Luciana Lopez, go to vimeo.com/225836576.
By Grace Gassin of Dance Informa.