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How does The Royal Ballet School create such great choreographers?

Several world-class choreographers began their training with The Royal Ballet School – how do they grow the dance-makers of the future?

By Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager)

24 February 2017 at 11.44am | 5 Comments

The list of choreographers who trained at The Royal Ballet School is long. One of the earliest was Kenneth MacMillan. Following in his footsteps are David Bintley and Michael ClarkChristopher Wheeldon and David DawsonLiam Scarlett, Jonathan Watkins and Kristen McNallyLudovic Ondiviela and Pietra Mello-Pittman. The list goes on, including established masters and rising stars. What they have in common is the School. So what did they learn there? And how does the School develop that legacy?

Kate Flatt teaches choreography at the Upper School, for students aged 16–19. She describes how the School’s history of teaching choreography originates with its founder, Ninette de Valois: ‘Before De Valois founded the School, she danced with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes – an artistic hothouse. De Valois recognized that in order for there to be artistic development there needed to be choreographers.’

De Valois’ initiative had a direct impact on Flatt, who was then a student with the School. She remembers, ‘De Valois invited the famous choreographer Leonid Massine to come and teach a course. It was incredible. He got us to think about the possibility of what the human body can do with the facility of classical ballet. He was a very radical thinker. What he taught was gold dust and I’ve carried that in my heart.’

The School’s emergent choreographers have since been guided by teachers including David Drew and Norman Morrice. Flatt and her colleague Jennifer Jackson together developed the School’s current choreographic course, at the request of Gailene Stock, Director of the School 1999–2014.

Ninette de Valois Choreographic Award 2016

How do you teach choreography? Flatt explains that ‘It’s about developing creative artists – I don’t teach choreographic theory. We want to develop habits of creativity, of discernment. We encourage individual choice. We hope that our young choreographers learn skills in handling material and people, and, crucially, how to create meaning in their pieces’.

One example of a choreographic project is ‘where students create a solo on themselves. That’s about the palette, the body as an instrument. They already have the facility of a highly trained body but are encouraged to explore the boundaries of this’. Flatt adds, ‘It’s about finding your own expressive movement. Thinking of possibility. It raises questions for them.’

Flatt’s lessons are also a way of building confidence in the young dancers. ‘It takes time to hone the craft of a choreographer, but the opportunity to do so is essential’, says Flatt. ‘My role is to provide guidance, mentoring and the recognition that success is actually built out of many experiments – some which go better than others! I aim to encourage a creative environment during training, where there is no fear of judgement. I throw down the gauntlet: come up with something fresh!’

Part of the programme encourages students to look beyond the world of ballet. ‘For example, we take students to Tate Modern to look at sculptures’, says Flatt. ‘We ask, “what did you like about it, what did you enjoy? Now make with movement three things that you respond to in that”. They get past working from received material and begin to generate their own.’ There’s no limit to what can work as a creative stimulus: architecture, the city, live music. All of these challenge the students’ invention, and expand their collaborative engagement.’

The ballet learnt in their other classes is no less a source of inspiration. Flatt gives an example: ‘We look at a classical duet. What’s the emotional relationship in the duet? Power, harmony, combat – what’s in there?’ As well as viewing these existing works with fresh eyes, the students are encouraged to make new works in response: ‘we ask them to look at what you can do with it. And that way they come at the duet in very different ways.’

These learnings have an impact that goes far beyond choreography. ‘It’s about exercising imaginative engagement, creative enterprise, curiosity, choice, discernment. These things are vital for being a dancer as well as a choreographer. We’re linking all sorts of exciting things from outside the four walls of the studio to feed their learning. I think that’s an important aspect of the School’s ethos: to develop dancers with creative ability. It’s an integral aim of our current Director Christopher Powney.’

And how does it feel to see those young choreographers flourish? ‘It’s wonderful. I believe that a talented choreographer has within them innately some sort of tacit knowledge. You’re just bringing that out, helping them develop that vision – and reassuring them.’

David Dawson’s The Human Seasons and Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain appear in a mixed programme 16–24 March 2017. Tickets are still available.

Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling runs 28 April–13 May 2017. Tickets are still available.

Christopher Wheeldon’s Strapless and a new work by Liam Scarlett appear in a mixed programme 18–31 May 2017. Tickets go on general sale 28 March 2017.

This article has 5 comments

  1. Ingrid Carlson Director ICSB Cape Town responded on 26 February 2017 at 12:35pm Reply

    Excellent and most useful article. Thank you. Bravo Royal Ballet!

  2. Angela responded on 28 February 2017 at 8:31am Reply

    If you tried, for once, to notice what’s happening in ballet outside the UK, you might want to mention Paul Lightfoot, chief choreographer and director of the Nederlands Dans Theater since many years, who trained at the RBS.

    • Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager) responded on 28 February 2017 at 10:02am

      Hi Angela,

      Many thanks for your comment. Unfortunately for reasons of space there were a number of important names we could not include in this list of international choreographers – many thanks for adding Paul Lightfoot here.

      All best,

  3. Elise Lummis responded on 2 March 2017 at 9:16am Reply

    Not to mention Jiri Kylian, who was also an RBS graduate.

  4. Samantha Jennings BA RAD PGCE responded on 31 August 2017 at 6:31pm Reply

    Much more to be done firstly utilising male and female talent outside the company, because dancers cherry picked within the company are not always the right people to choreograph. Look at Ashton he wasn't as much a dancer as an incredible visionary with artistic flare. I still don't see ballets today that show the flair and poetry of the past choreographic masters and I think this is due to traditional structures, not utilizing outside choreographers, not using modern narratives not really blending classical ballet language seamlessly with modern. Not easy task but you need choreographers who understand the language of ballet but who have interesting and relevant stories to share with modern audiences, finally the need to look and accept female ballet choreographers. See Samantha Jennings's work on youtube at

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