How the National Theatre is changing the face of ballet and drama

Richard Watts

Making the arts accessible to working class kids and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, is a passion for the directors of the National Theatre Ballet and Drama Schools.
How the National Theatre is changing the face of ballet and drama

Photographer: Kate Pardey.

Recently appointed as Artistic Director of the National Theatre Ballet School, Damian Smith brings with him more than 25 years’ experience as a dancer, including 18 years as Principal Dancer with the San Francisco Ballet.

But while Smith has performed on stages around the world, he owes a great debt to an early teacher, who saw huge potential in the young Indigenous boy from Newcastle.

‘I grew up with very humble beginnings. I lost my father when I was three years old, my mother was widowed with six children and we struggled, so ballet was not really an option for me. But thankfully Robyn Hick, the ballet teacher who first taught me in a small school in Newcastle … she gave me all my lessons for free because she saw that I was so driven and motivated and potentially had talent – and thank goodness for that,’ Smith said.

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Now he wants to repay the favour to future generations of dancers by ensuring the National Theatre Ballet School is accessible to students from all walks of life, by introducing scholarships for Indigenous and low-income students.

‘I think ballet has to not just be something that’s available to the more fortunate, financially. In America it seems that there’s a certain status or a class of people that ballet is surrounded by, and I just want to make sure that that’s not the case here,’ he told ArtsHub.

‘If you’re talented and you’re driven and you’re passionate and motivated, then why should you not have an opportunity to develop that passion?’

Smith’s vision is shared by Trent Baker, Director of the National Theatre Drama School.

‘It does worry me that a lot of [drama schools] now seem to be – if I can say it – very white bread, very middle class. There’s nothing wrong with that. I mean, I’m white, though I am working class. But we need a mixture of things. I think Damian’s idea to get more opportunities for low-income and Indigenous kids is a great one,’ Baker said.

Opportunities at the National Theatre Drama and Ballet Schools – Melbourne’s oldest performing arts institutions – are enhanced by the fact that would-be students are eligible for VET fee support.

‘We’re one of two drama schools that get VET funding, meaning there’s at least a loan for the students to take out. We’re hoping to increase that funding over the next year or so as well,’ Baker said.

Thanks in part to the access to VET fee support, the mix of students at the National is broad, with recently arrived migrants and former refugees included in the student body.

‘I just love the diversity of the people we’re able to take into this course,’ said Baker.

Increasing gender diversity is also on the agenda at the Ballet School, where Smith hopes to bring more young men into the fold.

‘We’re going to be out searching, doing an audition tour – I’m going to be setting up an audition tour for myself at the end of term two, so I would say August-September. We need to increase the number of boys in the School, because I want to introduce partnering and men’s repertoire and men’s ballet classes, all of those things,’ he enthused.

Expanding the training options for Drama School students is already underway, thanks in part to Baker’s 20 years of experience in the theatre sector, which includes studying at WAAPA, the VCA and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, and working with companies such as Melbourne Theatre Company, Bell Shakespeare, Red Stitch and La Mama.

As well as expanding the range and style of acting methods on offer at the National, Baker intends to expose the students to the full range of the artistic ecology.

‘Next year I’m keen to get different directors in to work with the students, so they have the experience of the many industry professionals out there, and so they can start building the relationships with those professionals,’ he said.

Both men are keen to collaborate in future too, in order to take advantage of having two schools under the one roof.

‘I really like collaboration,’ said Smith. ‘I like the influences that outside things have on projects sometimes, that are the results of this new, fresh interesting thing that I was not anticipating or expecting. And I think that’s important for young artists to understand. They’re artists and they have to have that willingness to remain open and rely on their technique but let the artistry flourish.’

Cross-fertilisation between the schools has already started to pay dividends, Baker explained.

‘There seems to a change in the student morale. The students are working together and for each other. I’ll give you an example: we’ve got a lot of set building going on for the second year show for Much Ado, and the first years have been jumping on board and helping without any sort of prompting which has been so good to see,’ he said.

Collaboration is also underway, Smith added, with some of the drama students appearing on stage in an upcoming ballet to help flesh out a ballroom sequence, but he’s keen to do more.

‘It would be nice too to give it a bit more attention and actually collaborate on something, developing the program, developing the piece together with Trent to see what might come of that, you know? Because actors need to know how to move and dancers need to learn how to act,’ Smith said.

Visit http://nationaltheatreballetschool.org.au/ and https://www.drama.nationaltheatre.org.au/ to learn more about courses, entry requirements and performances at the National Theatre Ballet and Drama Schools.

 

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's Performing Arts Editor and Team Leader, Editorial; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R.

The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Richard currently serves on the Committee of Management for La Mama Theatre, on the board of literary journal Going Down Swinging, and on the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel. He is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and in 2017 was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend.

Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardthewatts