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The McDonald College introduces Senior Contemporary Dance Program

The McDonald College's Senior Contemporary Dance Program. Photo by Erik Sawaya.
The McDonald College's Senior Contemporary Dance Program. Photo by Erik Sawaya.

Imagine the opportunity to immerse yourself in dance with the guidance of one of Australia’s most loved contemporary companies, while finishing your NSW Highe School Certificate. Through the new Senior Contemporary Dance Program (SCDP) at The McDonald College, students in years 10-12 now have the chance to do just that. Created in conjunction with Sydney Dance Company (SDC), the SCDP offers an unparalleled experience for young creative minds and bodies. We spoke with McDonald College Principal Maxine Kohler about how this course is helping shape the contemporary dancers of the future.

The McDonald College is an independent, co-educational school specialising in performance. In practice, this covers everything from dance and musical theatre to elite tennis. 

The McDonald College's Senior Contemporary Dance Program. Photo by Erik Sawaya.
The McDonald College’s Senior Contemporary Dance Program. Photo by Erik Sawaya.

“We run from Year 3 to Year 12, and the children can specialise by the time they get to secondary school in classical ballet, dance, acting, music, musical theatre, contemporary or tennis,” explains Kohler. “We found that the elite tennis students need exactly what dance students need, they need to be working every day, they need to be in an environment where they are appreciated for their difference, they need to be encouraged and given the time off when they need to go to tournaments, so that’s what we’ve done. So the tennis program actually fits in beautifully with the performance program. It’s performance, not necessarily performing arts.”

Performing arts colleges are common in Australia, but not for the younger demographic. The chance to attend a specialist performing arts institute is often reserved for university-age students, which is perhaps what makes The McDonald College so special. 

The McDonald College's Senior Contemporary Dance Program. Photo by Erik Sawaya.
The McDonald College’s Senior Contemporary Dance Program. Photo by Erik Sawaya.

Kohler sees it as a natural progression. “We found we were picking up children at 12 or 13, and their prior training didn’t match the level of talent they had,” she explains. “That is why we’ve gone down to Year 3. It’s important that these creative children are in an environment where they’re understood and appreciated, because they are quite different. If they go on to be performers of any kind, then of course we love that, but we’re also training children to go into the creative industries. So when they’re eight or nine, or even 12 or 14, you really don’t know where they’re going to go. It’s being in an environment where their creativity is appreciated and their differences are celebrated. Quite often, we get students who haven’t fit in elsewhere, maybe because they’ve been jeté-ing down the quad or something, which is not uncommon here.”

The creation of the SCDP was a chance to offer the students even greater flexibility in what they focus on. “I think when children go into Year 7, they might have this image of becoming a ballerina,” shares Kohler. “Then they might find that doing pliés every day is just not what they want, or that their body might not be what a lot of the institutions expect. And a lot of them just love the freedom of contemporary rather than the rigid structure of ballet, so we thought, ‘Why not start a contemporary dance stream?’ I approached Sydney Dance Company, who have a Pre-Professional Year, to form a partnership and create something for the next level down. So we started this new course, and this is the first year we’ve run it. I know that Linda Gamblin from SDC is just loving having the students even younger and really informing them from 15 years of age.”

The course is structured around three key focus areas: contemporary technique, creativity and performance. Day to day, the students are given the chance to train with PPY students, and learn from the choreographers who are working with SDC at any given time. 

“They also get to go and watch performances,” describes Kohler, “and they watched rehearsals that Rafael Bonachela has been taking, for example, so there is a lot of collaboration which opens up that pathway beyond school. It’s networking a little bit for them, which is so valuable.” And of course the reaction to the course has been overwhelmingly positive. “The students are loving it,” admits Kohler. “They are really enjoying the freedom of creating. The diversity of teachers that they have, who each bring a different way of teaching, and being exposed to that range of movement and styles.”

The McDonald College's Senior Contemporary Dance Program. Photo by Erik Sawaya.
The McDonald College’s Senior Contemporary Dance Program. Photo by Erik Sawaya.

Academically, students have access to high quality education in all areas of the curriculum. “I think a lot of the mainstream academic schools promote the fact that they are STEM schools, specialising in science, technology and engineering,” says Kohler, “but those STEM subjects can’t come alive without creativity. You can learn the theory, but if you don’t have a creative mind to put that theory into action, it’s not going to go anywhere. So for me, the important thing is that the students are allowed to run with their creativity, but they also get a top academic education. We do physics, chemistry, higher maths, all of those STEM subjects, too. This means their options are open by the time they leave school.” 

Although the students are busy, their timetable is manageable and all their performance education happens within the school day, alongside the academic subjects. Kohler believes this is integral to nurturing the students into adulthood. “It might sound controversial, but I think it is important that young children don’t go and do full time ballet and try and do distance education at the same time,” she says. “To expect them to dance all day and then go home and do all the additional work is such a big ask. I think they need to do both together in the one environment, keep all their options open and don’t put all their eggs in one basket.”

The success of the SCDP is evident even in its first year, and anyone interested in joining the course can register to audition on September 13. “We’re looking for dancers who are willing to give it a go, try something a bit different,” notes Kohler. “Be a little bit experimental. You need to be able to let go and just enjoy the freedom of these new movements while focusing on technique as well. And you don’t have to get your leg up at 180 degrees; it’s more individual than that. The course is ideal for those children who have had some classical training, although that’s not essential, but are wanting to go just that little bit beyond.” 

For more information on The McDonald College, click here.

To register to audition for the Student Contemporary Dance Program or any of the other disciplines available, click here.

By Emily Newton-Smith of Dance Informa.

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