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A place at the Royal Ballet School is like gold dust. Then the gruelling regime and the homesickness kick in. Meet the budding starlets with the will and physiques to succeed.

Robert Sandall
From The Sunday Times
Photographs by Lydia Goldblatt
July 5, 2009

It’s 7.30 in the morning, and I’m in the forecourt of White Lodge, the Royal Ballet’s lower school, wondering if it’s as good as it looks. Britain is hardly short of fabulous old buildings that serve as centres of learning, but few are more appealing than this Grade I-listed Palladian villa, home to the Royal Ballet School since 1955. 

 White Lodge, Richmond. Home of the Royal Ballet School

As former royal residences go, it’s not overpoweringly grand. Set in the rolling grassland of Richmond Park, less than 10 miles from central London, White Lodge comes across as a comfy family seat that has been tastefully upgraded into a modern boutique hotel. Your first thought, as it emerges from behind a screen of trees, is to wonder why the royal family ever gave it up. Your second is to wish that you’d spent your adolescence studying in such a glorious place.

In the school’s spiffing new dining area — part of its recent redevelopment — I eat scrambled eggs with Grace and Tom, two bright-eyed 12-year-olds who smile a lot and only speak when spoken to. Carrot-top Tom looks like a pocket-sized footballer in his shiny blue tracksuit. Grace’s scraped-back hair and elegant way with a fork lend her a more balletic air, but neither of them mentions dance classes when I ask which lessons they are looking forward to today. Grace says she likes history. Tom is mad for science. This no doubt reflects the pride the school takes in its GCSE results: its most recent harvest of A and A+ grades was twice the national average.

 Royal Ballet School 2009

Lest we forget though, that’s not why Tom and Grace are here. Both seem a bit young, frankly, to have made a decision about their careers, but this is in effect what all the 120-odd 11- to 16-year-olds at Britain’s premier ballet academy have done. The school’s declared policy is to only admit children with the talent and the motivation to become professional ballet dancers. “We are very clear about that,” the Royal Ballet School’s Australian director, Gailene Stock, informs me later in the day. “If we don’t feel a child has the necessary ability to go on and earn a living in classical ballet, they will be asked to leave.”

It’s a tough regime, but it achieves its objective. Every year, over 1,200 11-year-olds compete for around 25 places at White Lodge, a 1/50 acceptance ratio, which makes it one of the most selective secondary schools in the country. One in four is par for a top London independent.

The selection process doesn’t stop once you’ve got in. At the end of each year, a handful whose dancing is deemed not up to scratch will be, in White Lodge parlance, “assessed out”. After five years here, pupils who make the cut move on to the Royal Ballet’s senior school, adjoining the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden for three more years of rigorous training. Et voilà! In 2008, all of the students passing out of the senior school found jobs in ballet, either as dancers at the Royal Ballet itself, or in other companies around the world.

Like all of the children on the lower school roll, Tom and Grace are here purely on balletic merit. For fans of a classless society, this is a paradise. There are kids here from estates of both kinds — inner city and smart county — with a marked preponderance of the former. Fees are set at £30,675 per annum, but hardly anybody ever pays that because all parents are means-tested and only those earning over £178,950 are liable for the full whack. If your annual income is less than £11,475, your child’s time at White Lodge will cost you nothing. For the majority of the school’s current intake, who come from modest backgrounds, it costs hundreds rather than thousands per year to attend, the balance being paid by government grants. Though private trusts and donations help to fund White Lodge, and it is ranked as an independent school, half of the £22m spent on the recent expansion of its facilities came from the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

The catch is that since White Lodge recruits its pupils from all over the UK, and occasionally beyond, most are obliged to board. This prolonged separation from their homes, the first that most of the children will have experienced, can be a wrench. Grace, whose family live only a bus ride away in Twickenham, is one of the lucky ones: she returns home at weekends and every Wednesday night. Tom, who’s from Tadcaster in North Yorkshire, admits that at the beginning of his first term last September he missed his home badly. But neither of them objects to boarding in principle. “You do feel homesick at first,” Grace says firmly, “but you soon want to stay here because there’s so much going on.”

There sure is. Over the next 12 hours Grace and Tom will take classes in all the usual school subjects, which are referred to here as “academics”, as well as spending a minimum of two hours in one of White Lodge’s dance studios. Although the school day nominally ends at 4, activities do not. There are extra music classes — everybody is urged to learn an instrument — and rehearsals for public shows, notably the school’s annual performance at the Royal Opera House (ROH), in July. These carry on until tea, between 6 and 7pm. Then it’s time for homework and, eventually, bed in a shared dormitory. Lights out for the young ones, like Tom and Grace, is 9pm. For the oldest it’s 10.30.

 Young pupils at the Royal Ballet School 2009

With breakfast over, tracksuited Tom heads straight to ballet class. Having stripped down to his stretchy T-shirt and tights, he and the other 10 boys in his year work on the finale of the pending ROH show. This is led by White Lodge’s head of ballet, Diane van Schoor, an imperious South African, whose mastery of the vocabulary of classical ballet makes her sound like an over-caffeinated French teacher. Her commands are machinegun bursts of “plié, yes, chassé, now relevé, then croisé, écarté, now promenade!” and so on, which leave the boys panting for their water bottles. The girls, who join them later, are more poised and surer-footed. Van Schoor’s attitude is highly professional. “Always remember, time is money,” she admonishes her perspiring gang. “You must learn fast because that’s how it is in the world out there. Ballet companies never have enough time to rehearse.”

Back in her beautifully appointed office — “the Queen Mother always said this was her favourite drawing room!” — van Schoor reflects on changes in the world of ballet education. The most noticeable of which has been its growing popularity with boys. Is this the Billy Elliot effect?

“Oh, absolutely!” she declares. According to van Schoor, the wildly popular true story of a northern lad who becomes a ballet star was based on that of a colleague of hers at the Royal Ballet, its artistic co-ordinator, Philip Mosley. “Until five years ago we used to struggle to find enough boys. Now it’s 50/50.”

Having worked for more than 30 years as a dancer, choreographer and teacher — she briefly taught Darcey Bussell — van Schoor thinks that many conceptions about the life of a dancer are outdated. Foot injuries are still common at White Lodge, and immature limbs remain at risk of the dreaded Osgood Schlatters, a problem that disrupts the correct alignment of developing muscles and growth plates. “But there have been great advances in dance medicine,” van Schoor says, pointing out that White Lodge places great stress on what it calls preventative physiotherapy. It employs an on-site physio who leads the children through special exercises ahead of their dance classes.

Van Schoor is particularly insistent that dancers no longer hit a brick wall at 35, when most bodies start to fail. Ballet now opens the door to all sorts of other careers, from the keep-fit industry to sports teaching. One of White Lodge’s most famous old girls, the paralympic rower Helene Raynsford — who suffered a catastrophic brain injury at 21 — won a gold medal at Beijing last summer. “Everybody knows that ballet is hugely physically exacting,” says van Schoor, “but it’s also a fantastic discipline for the mind. It all depends on your drive and tenacity.”

These are qualities which, sadly, can’t always be taught, as 13-year-old Tristan has discovered. He was “assessed out” at Easter and will leave White Lodge at the end of the summer term. The son of an Afro-Caribbean single mother from Earl’s Court, Tristan is an outwardly calm and articulate boy who maintains that it was his decision to go.

“I find two hours of ballet a day, going over the same routines, just agonising,” he says, agreeing that one hour “would maybe have been okay”.

After two years hot-housing at White Lodge, Tristan has gone off ballet altogether, and he claims that this view is silently shared by half of his year. “I wouldn’t mind dancing again, but definitely not classical,” he says, adding that he plans to take up street dancing when his next school has been sorted out.

According to the head teacher, Pippa Hogg, Tristan is the only child in his year to have been “assessed out”. She is quick to say some of White Lodge’s most promising pupils are, like Tristan, inner-city black kids from underprivileged backgrounds. Three of the best dancers in the final year here are Brixton boys, all set to move to the Royal Ballet’s upper school in September. One, Isaac, is White Lodge’s head boy.

Despite Tristan’s comment about widespread discontent, discipline problems are nonexistent in the lessons I attend, whether ballet or academic. The average class size here is 12, which guarantees rapt attention; and the unprompted speed with which children shuttle between dance studios and classrooms, changing and showering as they go, suggests that morale here is high. Forewarned about the presence of visitors — me and a photographer — several of the younger girls have left handwritten welcome notes next to the fluffy toys on their beds in the dorms. One says simply: “I do hope you enjoy it here, it’s an amazing place.”

But White Lodge does have its downsides. Classical ballet can be brutally unfair. Some pupils get “assessed out” for no other reason than that their growing bodies have developed an un-balletic shape — a big bottom, say, or thighs the size of tree trunks. Max, a 14-year-old day boy who’s grown 4in over the past academic year, has been asked to leave because he hasn’t got the hang of his taller self yet. His dancing has lost its co-ordination.

You suspect that ballet’s ruthless preoccupation with body image might foster eating disorders, or worse, in the girls. But the school’s genial nurse, Frances Rees, firmly denies it. “Everybody knows their bodies are tools and they look after them.” In her 19 years here she’s only had to deal with a handful of cases of anorexia and bulimia, “and we haven’t had any for six years now”. There has never been a case of self-harming during her tenure, and Rees is sure if anybody did try it, she would soon hear about it. “The children really look out for each other.”

The big bête noire of White Lodge is the issue Tom and Grace flagged up at breakfast: homesickness. Almost everybody I speak to mentions it without me bringing it up. The head acknowledges that the school’s class-blind admissions policy means “most of the families who send their children here are total strangers to the culture of boarding schools”. One of the ballet teachers, Hope Keelan, talks of often conducting classes at the beginning of the school year, or after holidays, to the sound of teenage sobbing. It’s the boys, Keelan says, who miss home most. “The girls here seem to be better at controlling or concealing their feelings.”

I understand what she means when I meet Fay, a tiny, whey-faced 14-year-old with a broad Scouse accent, whose assessments rank her as one of the top dancers in her year. Fay misses home. “Me mam and daaa” crop up in almost every sentence. But Fay doesn’t do sadness. Instead she describes nights spent standing at the dormitory window, waiting for dawn to break over Richmond Park. “Because I can’t sleep, see.”

 Class at the Royal Ballet School 2009

Kevin, by contrast, has no use for such code. A lanky 15-year-old American, whose family moved to Virginia Water in the Surrey stockbroker belt when he was three, he still hasn’t got over the pain of living away from home for eight months of the year. He talks dramatically and at length about his “breakdowns”, while paradoxically outlining his future plans to leave home asap and dance in ballet companies all over the world.

I’m sure he will. Seeing Kevin rehearse for the Opera House show with the rest of the seniors is a revelation. No matter how sternly van Schoor orders these big kids about (“In year 11, I expect to see the legs up there, please, changez-vous!”) their energy and precision are breathtaking and I feel a spontaneous urge to applaud.

But that’s not the White Lodge way. This being one of the only schools in the country where the red pencil still rules and praise is not recognised as a motivational tool, there are no accolades at the end of the last rehearsal. As the clock nears 7 and the sun stares through the studio windows, van Schoor sends everybody off with a brisk “There’s hope for you guys yet!” By now, though, most of them look as if all they’re really hoping for is a good night’s sleep

Copyright 2009 Times Newspapers Ltd.

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