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Inspire, aspire, ignite: McDonald College’s International Summer School

Photo courtesy of The McDonald College.
Photo courtesy of The McDonald College.

Inspire; Aspire; Ignite. Those are the words used to describe the International Summer School’s (ISS) key training programs. Established by the McDonald College in 2006, the summer school is about connection with the dance industry outside of Australia, bringing important new styles, techniques and philosophies to young Australian dancers. It’s also about inspiring passion in the younger generations. In 2020, there will also be a new focus on preparing students for further education, with some of the world’s top finishing schools making up the faculty.

Dance Informa spoke with Terence Kohler, artistic director for ISS, about what sets the ISS apart from the many summer programs that now exist in Australia and beyond, and why connection and expression are such an important part of his philosophy.

Kohler has been involved with McDonald College since he was nine days old. His mother, Maxine Kohler, was one of the founding directors of the school, and is now the Principal. Despite this, staying close to home and to the college was not for Kohler. After completing his studies in Australia, he moved to Germany on a scholarship.

“Once I got to Germany, I was suddenly confronted with a huge tradition of the arts here and a completely different cultural appreciation,” he explains. “I was lucky to receive my chance very early as a choreographer, and by the time I was 21, I was already creating my first full-length ballets. I danced in Germany as well, although not for a particularly long time because the choreographic commitments were getting more and more. I have since been travelling around the world creating new ballets for different companies, I’ve completed a Masters Degree in Arts and Cultural Management, and I am now the Communications Manager for a ballet foundation here in Munich. It has been busy, when I look back, but really you just follow your passion.”

Kohler’s passion for the arts is evident when he talks about his involvement with the International Summer School. “I’ve been Artistic Director for the last three years,” he describes, “although I’ve been coming back as a guest teacher on the faculty for the last 10 years, on and off. I have first-hand experience of how geographically isolated Australia is, and I feel like my experiences in Germany and throughout the world allow me to bring a piece of the international arts scene back with me each time. I have always tried to offer experiences that are not available to the masses, and allow students to focus on their own artistic and creative development as fledging and aspiring young artists.”

ISS’s dance streams are focused on three different levels. “We have Inspire, which is for the young recreational dancers,” he explains, “who are dancing as a hobby, and they would be around the seven- to 10-year-old bracket. Then we have Aspire, the aspiring young dancers who are already quite engaged with classical ballet and different genres of dance. Finally, we have Ignite, catering to the pre-professional dancers who are really quite focused on achieving their goals, increasingly of moving overseas to further their balletic training. So we offer something for everyone from ages seven to 20, basically.”

Photo courtesy of The McDonald College.
Photo courtesy of The McDonald College.

Dividing the program in this way allows the students at each level to get something slightly different out of the week or two weeks they are there. And Kohler is careful about the faculty that he puts together to achieve this, this year focusing on influential finishing schools from across the pond. “For 2020, we’re introducing the English National Ballet School, the American Ballet Theatre Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School and the Houston Ballet Academy as artistic partners,” says Kohler. “We’ve seen a trend that people are only motivated in Australia when there is an audition on the cards. However, having run auditions ourselves over the last few years, we found it quite unfair that the experiences would always fall only to a few students. And that is the double-edged sword of the equation; we don’t want to promote competition culture any further than it already is. Now of course, competitions are important, because it’s how the students gain stage experience, so I’m not condemning them at all. But we want to open the summer school up to really offer everybody the chance to gain insight to what is going on around the world. So David Yow is joining us from the English National Ballet School; and we’re very lucky to have Cynthia Harvey, the artistic director of American Ballet Theater JKO joining us personally; and Vicki Attard, who was the interim artistic director of Houston Ballet Academy for a few years. And they will be curating their timetables, so they can offer students an insider view as to what they’re looking for and what makes their school unique.”

The ISS is primarily centred on ballet, although Kohler brings modern influences in where he can. “I think ballet benefits so greatly from exposure to other forms of dance, and really there’s not a ballet company worldwide that has a purely classical repertoire anymore,” he says. “Allowing students to add new qualities or new strings to their bows with different choreographic visions is something that’s very important. We have a large 21st century repertoire focus, and this year we’re going to be presenting repertoire from Stanton Welch, from Rafael Bonachela and hopefully Christopher Wheeldon as well.”

At the end of the program, there is a chance for students to show their work. Kohler is keen to ensure it’s not just a showcase of perfect performances; this is an open demonstration of the actual work the dancers have been putting in. “I want to show what they’ve been focused on, rather than presenting final products,” he explains. “And that helps parents to understand what the students have been doing. The demonstration reveals what makes dance in a certain place specific, and what makes a style specific in comparison to another. Or, what is the motivation behind something we’ve been doing.”

Photo courtesy of The McDonald College.
Photo courtesy of The McDonald College.

And the education aspect of the ISS is open to teachers, too. Via the Access programs, teachers are invited to connect with the international guests who form the faculty, leaving them inspired and excited about their own teaching. “I think teachers feel like they are isolated within their own communities sometimes,” notes Kohler, “but we’re urging them to come and speak with people like Cynthia Harvey, to have the courage to look at what’s going on and how their students are engaging with other students in the studio. We’ve got to move toward a supportive culture of one another, even if we are economically working against one another to survive. I would like to see a more supportive culture within the arts in Australia — that would be my hope — because that would be reflective of professional arts culture I’ve seen across the world. So catering for teachers as well as students is very important to me as a philosophy.”

The ISS is clearly more than just a week or two of dancing. Kohler’s commitment to artistry at all levels is what drives him each year. “Achieving good technique is only a means to an end,” he says, “because beyond that comes expression, and when cultivating that expression, there is no right or wrong; there is only authenticity. And that is something as a choreographer, and as a ballet master, and as a teacher myself that I strive for with this new generation. We’re being demanded of different things from younger generations, and I think it’s important that we contribute to building their emotional resilience, especially in the face of social media and these sorts of things. So at the summer school, we really try to open up a dialogue for the community to enjoy our art form on different levels. I think what we offer is access to the international arts community. There’s so often this idea that everything has to lead to a pathway and beyond, but once you arrive into a professional arena, the pathways disappear, and we are simply human beings working with one another. Fostering that non-competitive growth mindset is something we try to uphold, so that we can share the arts together and share what makes dance so unique around the world. We’re trying to build an awareness of what’s going on and bring that back into Australia for these few weeks.”

McDonald College will host the International Summer School from 7 – 17 January 2020. Information on all programs, including the Access teachers programs, can be found here. A Spring Sale is running on all programs until the end of November.

By Emily Newton-Smith of Dance Informa.

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