While the global pandemic has changed everything for dancers, many industry leaders have used this strange time to think outside the box, to make a start on unique projects and to create new opportunities for performers. None more so than Jason Coleman, who is a household name in the Australian dance scene thanks to the Ministry of Dance full-time training institute and agency. Coleman has used the relative quiet of lockdown and the emergence of remote learning to finally bring to fruition something that’s been many years in the making. Just announced, the Ministry of Performing Arts College (MOPAC) will be a specialist institute of education under the Ministry umbrella, offering high school students the chance to complete all compulsory learning areas of the Victorian Curriculum, alongside in-depth training in dance, vocal studies, acting, media and performance. With the course launching for the first time in 2021, Dance Informa spoke with Coleman and newly appointed MOPAC Director Kenneth Radley about what’s on the horizon.
“The idea for the school is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” begins Coleman, “but because the Ministry of Dance is such a hub for production and gigs and shows and all these other things we do, we’re usually really manically busy. During COVID, which has been a terrible time for so many people, we’ve also had some time and space to breathe and see that we’ve actually got everything set up to be able to deliver something that I’m very passionate about.”
Coleman’s plan to create a high school branch to the existing professional offerings at Ministry of Dance has stemmed directly from his own training experiences. “I was fortunate enough to attend the Victorian College of the Arts, the National Theatre and The Australian Ballet School as a teenager,” he describes. “Due to family circumstances, in the middle I attended the equivalent of a Steiner school for two years – a free-thinking school that was focused on celebrating the individual. At that point in the elite dance institutions, there was not much focus on the individual. It was all very much about making that perfect ballerina and fitting into a mould. So, what I want to do with MOPAC is to combine these two things – an education in the performing arts that celebrates the individual and seeks out the individual needs. Do you wish to be a singer? Do you wish to be an actor? Do you wish to be a dancer? Do you wish to be a triple threat? Where do you see yourself fitting in – is it choreography, direction, stage management? There are so many things that come from the training that we do. That’s the basic premise as to why we did it. COVID has allowed us the timing to deliver it, but I’m really excited. And getting Kenneth as our director is just amazing.”
Radley, who, aside from having a Master’s degree in Education, has spent a long and storied acting career in movies, plays and TV series – he also created and played B1 in Bananas in Pyjamas for 10 years – is equally excited to be a part of MOPAC. “I’ve always loved teaching because I was mentored myself by some beautiful, wonderful people,” Radley explains. “The opportunity to be in a flexible and dynamic learning space such as Jason has outlined is enormously exciting, because it’s unique in Victoria; it does not exist. We want to celebrate being individual and to care for and nurture the creativity of each individual as opposed to having the sort of summative assessment model that exists in most educational institutions. It’s now time to turn that around and make sure that creativity is holding an equal position to academic studies, and we will insist on a very strong work ethic in both academia and the creative pursuits. And, the building itself is really funky, so it’s a great place to be. I was thrilled when Jason and the team asked me to come along and be on board – the answer within my heart was immediately yes.”
In practical terms, students who attend MOPAC will dedicate roughly half of their day to the academic studies and the rest to performing arts. “It’s going to be a reasonably unique setup,” Radley describes. “Students will complete the Department of Education curriculum from a remote point of view, under our supervision. This year, every student in Victoria has become familiar with working remotely, which is why we’ve been able to do this now. The students will be working on core subjects like Maths, English, Science and Humanities for half of the day. They will learn from teachers who are teaching them online in our space, but I’ll be there along with others as a fully registered teacher to supervise and to assist, should they need it. I won’t be running their classes, but I’ll be there to assist them throughout their learning as much as they need.”
Students will therefore be able to obtain their Victorian Certificate of Education by Year 12 as they would at any other school. “Thankfully, the Victorian Government supports this type of learning, so that they can indeed have their VCE certificate,” Radley says. “It’s a really common practice, such as the way lead sporting institutions, elite swimming schools and so on approach their academics. The same principles will apply with us.”
Coleman’s experience with taking students through dance classes on Zoom over the last year has inspired this new way of learning. “With our classes during lockdown, you logged on and your dance teacher took you through your entire class from start to finish for that hour,” he describes. “Yet with the school system here in Australia, they logged on to see their teacher in the morning who told them what to do for the day, and then the parents were left to take the kids through that alone. Everyone experienced remote learning, but they found it really, really tough, and the parents really appreciated how their dance teachers taught their kids through the complete hour. So, what we’re offering is remote learning, but it’s all supported. The kids put on a uniform – which are the funkiest uniforms you’ve ever seen – they come to school, and they complete their remote learning supported by Kenneth and the other educators that we have here, alongside their performing arts classes. That was the key to realising that this was doable for us. Everyone has experienced learning online this year, but we can do it in a more supportive way.”
Coleman has also adapted his Ministry of Dance space – which is the largest private dance space in the world, spanning over an acre of land in Melbourne – to specifically accommodate the new MOPAC students. “One of the reasons why I haven’t done this before is the geography of the space,” he shares. “I don’t believe children should be hanging out and having their lunch with university age students, hearing conversations and problems and issues that young adults are having. We have set it up so the students have their own studios, their own green room and their own hang space, so that they are being nurtured within their age groups. This year has allowed us the time to be able to make those changes, to make sure that I’m inviting them into an environment that serves them.”
Of course, learning in one of Australia’s most respected and renowned performing arts facilities will be the most exciting part of the course for any prospective student. “At the risk of sounding complacent, which we never are,” says Coleman, “the performing arts side of it comes naturally to us. This is what we do. Our institution is set up currently to develop University-aged students into legitimate work in show business. It’s my personal belief that too many courses have opened up in Australia that take money from parents and promise that their kids will be dancers. We don’t do that here. From having a course under which 90 percent of our graduates come out and find their feet somewhere in the pyramid of showbusiness, we have already pulled together the best educators in singing, dancing, acting and acrobatics. For us, it is the part that we’re passionate about; it’s the part that we have proved ourselves on. MOPAC is a natural extension of what we already do.”
Those who apply to attend MOPAC are not expected to be incredible dancers or performers already – especially at such young ages. Instead, Radley and Coleman are seeking students with a good work ethic, drive and perhaps a little something unique. “We’re not looking for finished results,” agrees Radley. “We’ve got people auditioning for us who are wonderful dancers already, and that’s great and we can improve and nurture that absolutely. But we are not looking for experts; we’re looking for people who are trainable, which is almost all of us. The audition process is about saying hello, and it’s important that it is a very welcoming process. We ask them to prepare a short monologue, to prepare a song, which they may not have to complete the whole song, and some dance as well. We’re looking for a spark.”
“I’m also more than happy to be a safe place for kids who aren’t fitting into the mainstream high school programs but are interested in the performing arts,” Coleman shares. “We’ve had students in our full-time course who had never found their place before but who can’t wait to come to the Ministry because they feel like a person here. You do have to have a love for the art form if you’re going to be coming into an institution like ours, but there are kids out there who will really benefit from an independent free-thinking school environment. It’s my personal belief that the skills you obtain through the artistic side of the studios will serve you for the rest of your life, regardless of whether you grow up to become a performer or not. You’re learning discipline, passion, friendship, teamwork and confidence, and confidence will serve people forever.”
It is undoubtedly Coleman’s personal and emotional connection to the business he has built over the last decade that will ensure MOPAC’s success. “I don’t just say it; I live and breathe it,” he says. “I honestly believe that for every kid who comes here, it will serve them for their confidence and for their soul. If your kids are confident and they’ve got friends and they’re part of a team and they’re part of something, they’re so much more likely to make better choices for themselves in their later teenage years when they’re facing society. They believe in themselves. People look at Kenneth and I, and they may see Kenneth has worked on these incredible films and I’ve done the Olympic Games and 18 Broadway musicals, but that’s right at the top of the pyramid. I have been on stage at the Logie Awards on a Sunday night and, on the Monday, I was in a shopping centre dressed as a potato. We’re not just creating people who are going to be dancing behind Beyoncé but people who might stem off into choreographing, owning their own dance studio or stage management. There are so many things that are involved in our world.”
It is a credit to Coleman’s team at Ministry that there is so much excitement buzzing around MOPAC’s 2021 launch. Coleman is perhaps most excited to be working alongside Radley. “I’ve been running the Ministry for over a decade now,” shares Coleman, “and I knew it was a good business plan, but I never really realized how emotionally connected I was going to become to it. I’ve developed and gathered this incredible, amazing group of people there. And having Kenneth come into our building to develop and work with our students has been an incredible thing for us. The kids coming into MOPAC are going to be led by somebody who is warm and strong and understanding, and I’m really excited to have him here.”
By Emily Newton-Smith of Dance Informa.