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Animated Edition - Spring 2003
Breakthrough at the ballet
Gwen Van Spijk reports on an innovative programme of professional development opportunities initiated at Birmingham Royal Ballet
In 2000 Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB) received an award from the Arts Council of England's Breakthrough Award Scheme in recognition of the pioneering work it had undertaken in establishing the MA in Applied Studies in Dance with the University of Birmingham.

The funding was to support research, development and a pilot programme of professional development opportunities for dancers, musicians and key staff. The proposed scheme, called Breakthrough, initially comprised four key strands:

  • research and development of distance learning opportunities and establishment of a Study Room

  • placement of an MA graduate dancer in the BRB education department

  • supporting the development of the West Midlands ballet training infrastructure

  • developing a new partnership with the Birmingham Conservatoire.

In the early stages of implementing the initiative, a fifth strand was incorporated into the programme, the FeetBeat project, which offered work experience based training and mentoring to dancers and musicians through their active delivery of workshops in Junior Schools.

Three factors were identified as of importance in the development of Breakthrough: the MA in Applied Studies in Dance; the physical re-development of the Hippodrome complex, which is the base of the company; and the increasing involvement of company dancers in education work. In the wider context, the increasing importance of, and focus on professional development within the arts and the growing opportunities offered by distance and virtual learning were key factors in the development of the initiative. This article looks at two key areas of the initiative: the Learning Opportunities Programme, and the Placement Programme.

The aim of the Learning Opportunities Programme was to offer the company's dancers a range of options that would assist them to develop the skills required to contribute to the work and activities of the education department. Whilst it was not required that the dancers become involved in the work of education department it was felt that this was an interest of some of them and that it might be a possible and appropriate route along which some might develop their careers as they matured. It was also recognised that the skills acquired through the programme would be transferable and would support the dancers' more generic professional development, assisting them in the longer term and in the wider development of their careers.

The initial premise was that the programme would be a distance learning initiative exploiting local and national developments in virtual learning. An integral aspect of the thinking behind the programme was the establishment of a Study Room - subsequently named the ICT Learning Centre - within the BRB/Hippodrome complex. This room, houses computer terminals with internet access, serves as a resource for current MA students, participants in the Breakthrough project and other members of the BRB company.

The placement programme was conceived to give a further development opportunity to a dancer graduated from the MA programme, providing a framework within which they might apply in a practical way the knowledge acquired through MA study. It was also anticipated that a placement of this kind would enable BRB/the education department to benefit from the skills and experience gained by the graduate. The placement's role was to involve project co-ordination and delivery, ie: it involved both office based administration and practical teaching/workshop delivery.

Project benefits & outcomes
The Learning Opportunities Programme and the Placement Programme - have been subject to a process of evaluation. Whilst the two strands were conceived as distinct, in practice they have overlapped.

All the dancers participating in the programme had differing levels of experience and were at varying stages in the achievement of their ambitions as dancers, nevertheless the project in general succeeded in fulfilling the bulk of their expectations and needs. The programme only having been completed one month prior to the writing of this article, it is the benefit to the dancers which is at this point in time most in evidence; this being noted however it must be recognised that the generic benefits of the programme have had an immediate impact upon the company in general. It is also undeniable that the specific benefits now being experienced by the individual dancers have the potential to come into play within the wider company in the medium to long-term future. Specific outcomes of different modules of the programme include:

Information technology
Participants successfully developed a basic understanding of core computer functions and have acquired skills in using the core software packages. A dossier of guidance notes and instructions, serving as a lasting reference and aid, supported each session.

From the dancers' perspectives this has had an immediate benefit, enabling them to better execute existing responsibilities, from maintaining personal accounts and preparing documents to undertaking research on the internet. For those with the MA or other studies in consideration it has provided them with a basic grounding in the applications of a primary tool to facilitate future learning and study and for those with outside business interests and hobbies, for example property development and management, the training has allowed them to implement a more efficient approach to these activities.

Participants acquired a basic introduction to core management functions and concepts. For some this has served to formalise incidental knowledge and experience and for others it has given an insight into potential future careers eg: marketing and PR. Each participant identified one management subject/function that they had found most interesting/useful or enjoyable; significantly there were few overlaps, with individual dancers having very specific and different preferences, confirming the dancers' individuality and highlighting the fact that - despite very similar training and a shared passion for dancing - their latent skills in other areas are very different.

Alongside these benefits for the individual, the management training gave all participants an increased understanding and appreciation of the work undertaken by the management departments within BRB. All have identified that this assists them in fulfilling their roles as performers and has highlighted areas in which they can make a stronger contribution to the overall work of the company.

Development Needs Analysis (DNA) and Career Orientation (CO)
The dancers who pursued this module represented almost the full range of career stages, except for those at the very beginning of their careers. Having been immersed in an environment and associated career structure from an early age, all unanimously found the opportunity to consider their future a positive experience. The DNA/CO frequently worked in tandem with the management module to reveal preferences and latent skills and suggest potential future options for more in depth exploration. It has been useful in opening up horizons and generating a reassuring and positive view about the future as opposed to the future appearing as a complete unknown. For those dancers contemplating a more imminent transition, the module was invaluable in helping to build the confidence and an action plan to embark on change.

ICT Learning Centre
The ICT Learning Centre has proven to be an invaluable resource; used by dancers from within the Breakthrough group to do homework or background research, and also by others pursuing personal study or/and who have signed up independently for other courses including OU and A levels. Because of its location at the heart of the BRB building the room is easily accessible and it was possible for dancers to use it during the down times in their daily schedule. This accessibility of the ICT Learning Centre has without doubt made it demonstrably viable for dancers to contemplate study in way that was not possible before.

Placement programme
Two dancers at different stages at their career undertook placements within the education department at BRB. Each had a different impetus and anticipated outcomes. The first - undertaken by Grace Maduell, a dancer who had retired - represented a very real embarkation along a new career path in an area that was one of potential long-term interest. It was an opportunity to apply latent skills, such as creativity, and to find a new context and framework within which to apply the knowledge and skills of a professional dancer.

The second placement, undertaken by Lee Fisher dovetailed with his ongoing career as a dancer; a career that in its 14th year, Lee is still very comfortable and happy with. For Lee the placement represented an opportunity to consolidate and extend the experience, knowledge and skills acquired through short-term projects undertaken for the education department. Dance education was one area amongst others in which he has an interest and the placement was an opportunity to clarify the potential it held as a future career regarding his passion, inherent skills and aptitude. Lee had already through previous work with the Education Department uncovered a particular interest and aptitude for work with disabled people and had begun to establish relationships with specific groups and schools.

Both of the dancers identified that they would have welcomed access to a mentor during the programme: they recognised the skills and knowledge that they brought to teaching situations in their capacity as professional dancers: and also the knowledge of repertoire and performance skills/psychological strength; however they also noted that in educational/workshop situations which are not technique based, choreographic skills are also required. Dancers are not automatically choreographers and they felt they would benefit from some training to develop these skills.

The Breakthrough project was a multifaceted scheme that realised undeniable benefits as evidenced in the outcomes of both the Learning Opportunities and Placement programmes.

The Company benefited immediately in a practical way from the Placement Programme. The placements clearly operated as a two-way programme of skills and experience exchange between the company as a whole and the individuals concerned. Both placements came to recognise that the skills and knowledge they had acquired as dancers, found in education work a broad arena for their application and development.

The education department likewise drew on the accumulated dancing knowledge of the individual placements, accessing knowledge about repertoire and technique skills. Lee Fisher felt that pursuing education work developed his creativity and was an opportunity to reflect upon and develop understanding of his own craft - this subsequently feeding back into and benefiting his dancing.

These placements have been evidenced as a valuable contributor to concepts of career development and progression, and the BRB experience demonstrates that placements can be assimilated into the operations of such a company. The two different placements represented two ways in which this can be implemented and demonstrated how a gradual transition from the role of dancer to educationalist might be effected. Other identified benefits are that:

  • dancers relished the opportunity to exercise themselves in a different way, allowing them to subsequently put more into their dancing

  • dancers have increased in confidence, that has of itself assisted with performance skills

  • dancers articulated an enhanced understanding of the operation of the company as a whole, creating scope for more exchange and partnership between the dancers and other company departments and allowing a broader application of dancer's skills to mutual benefit e.g. developing their advocacy role

  • the opportunity to begin considering longer term career options added to individual feelings of worth and engendered positive ideas about the future - again enabling dancers to invest more in their current roles.

The Breakthrough programme has precipitated a number of overarching benefits for the dancers involved, and which are also extremely positive for the company.

Dancers recognised that the opportunity to study was an opportunity to use a different part of the brain than used in dancing; this encouraged mental agility and allowed the dancers to draw on their expanded experience and knowledge when in the studio. The opportunity to focus energy on studying and take time out from thinking about dancing - 'breathing space' - was also recognised by dancers as enabling them to actually be more focussed on dancing when in the studio.

Accessing new knowledge and information saw the dancers grow in confidence, which they confirmed helped them both in the studio and on stage. The dancers who participated in the management module articulated that this gave them a new insight and understanding of the company and its operations; this awakened interest in them to make a broader contribution to its activities.

Managing and evaluating Breakthrough has been a rewarding and fascinating experience offering insights into viable and effective methodologies for addressing dancers' professional development. The acquisition and development of new skills by the dancers at Birmingham Royal Ballet involved in Breakthrough allows one to conjecture that these can be applied to other activities within the company, and adapted by others to meet their needs. The project also identified mechanisms through which the sometimes challenging processes of career change/ transition for dancers can be facilitated and supported. Having offered these insights, Breakthrough also highlighted that it would be beneficial to build an understanding of professional development and an awareness of career development into a dancers' training from the outset.

Gwen van Spijk is a dance management consultant contact

For information about the education department at Birmingham Royal Ballet contact or visit

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Animated: Spring 2003