Melbourne School of Classical Dance is en pointe

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Melbourne School of Classical Dance is en pointe

Words by Zachary Snowdon Smith

Melbourne School of Classical Dance is throwing wide the doors on one of our most elite performance arts: ballet.

“We’re a place for anybody and everybody,” says owner Linda D’Ornay. “We’re a ballet school that really appreciates diversity.”

With students aged from three to 76, the school takes an individualised approach to learning. Young children develop a sense of musicality and an ability to follow directions, while older students practice pointe technique or study theory. The school also offers walk-in lessons for adults curious about ballet. No appointment necessary – just put your hair up and bring a pair of flats and a water bottle.

“Lots of adults come in with no prior experience,” says D’Ornay. “Maybe they missed out on the opportunity to do ballet as a child and wish to take that up as an adult. Or maybe they’re wanting to increase their physical fitness in an environment that’s not like a traditional gym.”

Student Bridget Stackpole, 12, has performed with the Australian Ballet and mentors younger students at the school. “If you like a challenge, starting ballet would be very good for you,” she says. “You can get very fit as well. It’s good cardio.”

The school’s new Brunswick facility has three full-sized studios, including one with two-way glass allowing parents to watch their children practice without making them feel self-conscious. The school’s largest studio approximates the dimensions of a theatrical space, preparing students to perform onstage.

“Students are learning from industry professionals – that’s what separates us from other, more recreationally focused ballet schools,” says D’Ornay. “Our staff members work really hard to bring out the best in every child and adult who attends. We’re not a funnel where kids get thrown in and then spat out as professional ballet dancers.”

Performances put on by Melbourne School of Classical Dance include child-friendly staples like The Nutcracker and Coppélia. The school is also preparing a production of La Fille Mal Gardée, a lesser-known romantic farce that culminates with a man falling in love with an umbrella. Sets and props, including a towering coffee pot for the ‘Land of Sweets’ sequence in The Nutcracker, are built with the help of parents.

For some students, dance is everything. For others, it’s just one of many interests. Bella Kolodziej, 14, has found that excellence in ballet doesn’t require obsession. She’s pirouetted through productions from The Snow Queen to Mary Poppins, but also enjoys lacrosse, surfing and head shotting zombies on Call of Duty.

“At ballet I talk about ballet, but when I’m outside of ballet, I don’t,” she says.

D’Ornay is also pushing back against the perception of ballet as morbidly competitive, popularised by films like Black Swan and Bolshoi Babylon. At Melbourne School of Classical Dance, students work with partners on their exercises, promoting a sense of comradeship and mutual support, she says.

“I think it’s more important than anything else that our students develop a positive sense of self,” says D’Ornay. “We’re not just interested in their technical ability. We want the kids to come out from their experience here stronger and healthier, mentally and physically.”

Melbourne School of Classical Dance has also pushed for greater inclusion of students with additional needs. The school previously engaged deaf actress and director Medina Sumovic to instruct students.

“We felt that, if anyone is going to be able to portray a character non-vocally, it’s going to be a deaf performer,” says D’Ornay. “We try to push boundaries.”

The school’s next concert will be the Winter Soirée, a showcase to be held at the Clocktower Centre on Sunday June 24. For students at Melbourne School of Classical Dance, the intervening months will be filled with practice and preparation.

“You know, ballet is not just all girly,” says Kolodziej. “It’s very hard to turn out and do all these things while looking graceful. It’s very hard to make something look effortless.”