Part Two – Reflecting on my time at vocational Ballet School – nature or Nurture?

Weekends gave us a moment of normality; usually only a modest 24 hours. Saturday morning Ballet class would generally be a combined boys and girls class, which helped for a more easy-going atmosphere. Saturday mornings were just one of the many scenarios, where I learned to be fast, organized and time efficient. Class was followed by a crucial 15 minutes before the school bus would leave for Richmond train station. I learned to sprint across school grounds, change out of uniform, pack a weekend bag, before another frantic sprint towards the school parking lot; every minute of the weekend counted.

A weekend at home became an essential luxury and a privilege to have one evening at home; a catch up with family and a night in my own bed. It was these little things that are so easily taken for granted and I never thought that simply coming home would induce this feeling of release and freedom. However, it was a sense of freedom with a paradoxical heaviness and caution; letting go and allowing an absolute free flowing release, would make the Sunday evening return all the more difficult. It was easier to maintain my protective wall despite the cracks, than to constantly have to rebuild it. 

Weekends were essentially a moment to come up for air and longer school holidays allowed for more relaxation and normality.  At the time, I always seemed happier and more content within the school campus and surrounded by my peers. At home, I seemed agitated and unbalanced.  In retrospect, home was exactly the place where I could be who I wanted to be but that would not necessarily be accepted within the lodge’s establishment and the social backdrop.  In that environment, I knew who I had to be. The unwritten rules  were much easier to understand than the freedom and security that home gave me; the lodge was never a trusting environment to allow for freedom of self-exploration and expression. Conforming was the most trustworthy and reliable route to take.

Many students made bigger sacrifices than I had to make; home was too far away for them to make it for a weekend getaway.  ‘Staying in’ on the weekend sounded much more enchanting than reality proved it to be. Students were never permitted to leave the school grounds with an exception of a short excursion on Saturdays and sometimes Sundays:  a walk down to a bleak little village, Sheen.   Sheen provided the bare essentials: a small supermarket, a coffee shop or two, empty second hand shops and Sam’s chicken; the infamous fast food joint amongst the White Lodgers. Greasy fried chicken and a Latte were mere attempts at a normal weekend.  

Time moved at a much slower pace on weekends and apart from the Sheen-trip, it felt more like a quarantine inside the dormitories and the common room. Boys and girls were never allowed in each other’s corridors/dormitories and it was a guaranteed adrenaline kick if one dare-devil in the group ran through the corridor of the opposite gender. However, weekends permitted the boys common room to become the hangout and cinema for those who needed to pass the time. 

Despite the overbooked yearly program, there were many special moments which I fondly and nostalgically remember. The build up to Christmas at White Lodge created a warm, festive atmosphere and this was largely thanks to the music department.  The first term of the year required all students to sacrifice some of their lunch hour, to attend mandatory choir practice. It was a truly tedious extra curriculum, passionately enforced by the head of music in her efforts to prepare us for the annual Christmas carol service.  The tiresome hours of practicing a perfectly harmonious ‘Silent Night’ and  ‘Hark the Angels Sing’, was all worthwhile  once we stood in the small modest chapel, just outside of Richmond Park. A choir of young dancers united with their voices, not competing to stand out, but collectively filling the chapel with warmth and festivity.  Parents were also invited to this beautiful event and this rare moment where the pressure and competitiveness dissolved and conversations over a mulled-wine and mince pie, were somewhat more distanced from the life and affairs at the Lodge.  

Another iconic annual event was the Summer fair. With the British summer time being very unpredictable, we were always prepared for all weather conditions, but the ideal scenario would find us out in the garden on a small platform stage, performing various repertoire and repetitive folk dancing routines.  Summer Fair opened the school gates to the public, family and friends and the whole campus was filled with a vibrant buzz and excitement. However, as we were the main attraction- the puppet show-  we were strung into a well organized performance schedule including very fast quick changes and sprints across the lawn to be in time for the next number. 

Summer Fair is a long tradition held by White Lodge and every year was special in its own way. It was a day to forget the stressful school life and to share the campus with our family and friends and to feel the true essence of this beautiful historical setting – A remote enclosure, dedicated to a beautiful art form.

Thankfully, the school year came to an end during the early summer months; the most charming and colorful time at White Lodge. It were these moments that stayed with me during the summer break, making it an alluring place to keep returning to.

The school grounds would finally be filled with ‘children’. Boys playing football or showing off on the tennis courts while the girls could finally fashion their new outfits and take pictures in the garden. A few humble hours of childhood. Summer invited spontaneous ideas and games and the house staff were more lenient with bedtime rules, and turned a ‘deaf-ear’ to our late night pillow talks.

The academic block courtyard captured the mid morning sun and the classroom doors leaked out laughter and good spirits; with school exams over, and summer performances soon approaching, Summer performances meant that the White Lodge students would be transported into central London (Covent Garden) where we were left to reside in an empty studio, to wait and be on standby for a long day of rehearsals and back and forth to the Royal Opera House.  We were like red and blue troops, always moving in groups, carefully watched and escorted everywhere. 

The Upper School was perceived as ‘round two’ of the Royal Ballet School saga and despite the efforts of appearing to be the same institution, under the same name; the Upper School had an air of superiority and entitlement which the young White Lodgers all worshiped.  Only a few ‘chosen ones’ would be granted one of the limited spots at the U.S and to step up in the esteemed hierarchy of the institution. 

The final year at White Lodge was a critical time period and ultimately the pinnacle year which every student had been working towards since the day they stepped into this ballet enterprise. Appraisals carried a heavier load as the results were not merely a number, but instead a harsh audition process to determine one’s future. (that’s what was generally led to believe).  On average, only half of a year group would be accepted to continue on to the Upper School and the rest were left to uncover the real world of dance schools and auditions. 

The process was impersonal and bureaucratic and somewhat insensitive to the psychics of young and emotionally delicate teenagers.  One by one, we entered the office through a heavy archaic door and found ourselves seated at a small round table, surrounded by the directors.  A deceivingly comfortable set-up, only to cushion the reality of what was about to be revealed. The apex minute for every White Lodger; the inevitable moment which has been anxiously dreaded – not knowing with what future you will walk out of the office with.  

In reality, it was just a school. Just a residence for the next 3 years. But for us, this was our world and the idea of anything else seemed unknown and inadequate.  This was the  undercurrent of thoughts across the board. We were blind sighted by an institution which posed as superior and greatly relied on status rather than substance.  What we as students failed to realize, was that our future and careers could function and flourish independently of the ‘name’ of a school. 

 I am often amazed as to how I lived through such an institution with such oblivious acceptance and how it rearranged how I perceived normality.  I believed that to become a dancer, I had to adopt this way of life and that any other way would be detrimental to my ambitions. I embodied this way of life and mentality for many years and struggled to accept a lifestyle or rhythm which was any less intense than what I had been used to. My outlook on life and the world of dance was heavily twisted and manipulated and became the catalyst for many inner conflicts. 

I cannot say what needs to change nor can I solely blame the institution. It was my personal experience and it was how my soul reacted and defended itself in such an intense environment. An idyllic residence, in the middle of a nature reserve, cut off from the real world; this Lodge inherently has the potential to be such an enriching, spiritual and wonderful resort.  Its fairytale architecture and off-white serene façade, masks the deeper cracks in the foundation and hides the questionable system in an attempt to maintain the illusive equilibrium. 

 What could have been a creatively expressive space, was instead reduced to a structure which required conformity. There was an unofficial mold which I felt pressured to fit into in order to be able to continue on the pre-approved path to ‘success’.  The pre-approved path was a conventional and narrow internal progression within the world of the Royal Ballet and like  horses with blinkers, we lived within that fantasy.  As a result, my state of happiness, was solely dependent on the probability of achieving this ‘success’. 

120 individuals, merged together, consolidated and reduced down to a system which functioned on the desperate dreams of succeeding in the illusive Ballet utopia. There is no doubt that this system has contributed to the success of many beautiful dancers, yet also tainted the development of so many individuals trying to find their place in the world. One could also argue: ‘nature or nurture’. Is this just the unfortunate nature of this beautiful athletic art? Or is it the way in which the dancing artists are being nurtured in so many vocational dance institutions?

“As time goes on, all schools only get left alive if they have found something special themselves.” – Dame Ninette de Valois

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