Royal Ballet Lower School at White Lodge, Richmond

Set in the heart of Richmond Park, White Lodge is home to the world-famous Royal Ballet Lower School. Janet Donin paid a visit there to see how pupils are keeping on their toes

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine February 2009

*** The Queen's birth is registered as here, the legendary dancer Rudolf Nureyev was a visitor, and Darcey Bussell, Adam Cooper, Wayne Sleep and, more recently, rising star Lauren Cuthbertson took their first tentative ballet steps on this spot. Built in 1727 as a hunting lodge for George II, White Lodge has been home to the Royal Ballet Lower School since 1955 - and, as schools go, it has to be among the most impressive in the world. Outside, the beautiful Georgian architecture and Palladian columns still conjure up images of a royal hunting lodge, while inside, the main hall has a beautiful stone floor and a spectacular wrought iron staircase curling to the upper floors. In the corner is a bronze statue of Margot Fonteyn, which is the first hint of White Lodge's current status as the country's foremost ballet school. "Look at Margot's hand," says Diane van Schoor, during my tour of the school. "One of her fingers is really shiny because all the students touch it for good luck." As ballet principal, Diane sees all the new applicants. "I'm not expecting a finished product, I'm looking for their future potential," she says in her soft yet quietly animated voice. "I look for good body proportions, self-confidence, musicality and, of course, good feet." With around 1,500 candidates each year, the competition is tough as the annual intake is just 24 new students. Usually, there are an equal number of boys and girls to make up a full complement of 125 students, ranging in age from 11 to 16 years. The daily routine As a vocational school, the daily routine consists of two hours of ballet and four hours of academic subjects followed by two-and-a-half hours of dance each evening and Saturday mornings. The morning ballet class usually incorporates an initial mix of body conditioning, perhaps some Pilates and a cardiovascular warm-up; all carefully constructed to ensure that there are no injuries. In the formal ballet classes, where the boys and girls are taught separately, the students follow the Royal Ballet School system of training. This is based on classical romantic Russian techniques, which have been adapted to a British style, while the ballet terminology is spoken in French. On my visit, I watch David Yow teaching the older boys in authoritative yet encouraging tones that have them doing even higher leaps and more accurate entrechats de voles. Their grace and athleticism is remarkable and I am particularly delighted with their greeting to me called a 'reverence', which is a special dance movement followed by a courteous bow. In the girls' class, the atmosphere is equally thrilling with magnificent leaps across the studio followed by astonishing pirouettes all encouraged by Diane van Schoor as she calls out the movements in rapid French. Again, I am treated to a beautiful 'reverence'. This ethos of simple courtesy is encouraged throughout the school with the senior students often encouraging the younger ones. As Pippa Hogg, head of school, tells me: "It's important that the students are polite without being precocious." They are also encouraged to recognise their own strengths and weaknesses, which helps them achieve their goals. Last year, there was a 96 per cent pass rate at GCSE level and 100 per cent at AS level in dance. "We have to get the academic teaching right," says Pippa, "or we wouldn't have the parents' confidence." The academic curriculum includes most subjects. During my visit, I pop into a junior science class where the 11-year-olds are creating models of cells using buns and jelly babies - an ingeniously hands-on approach that the children can relate to easily. Next is a French class where I join in with a song incorporating all the new vocabulary learned that day. And, finally, I hit the art class to see the students busily working on a White Lodge project featuring drawings of the building's architectural features. White Lodge is primarily a boarding school, where the students' rooms are colourful and comfortable, and there's also what Pippa calls 'the flopping space'. Surprisingly, though, most of the children are keen to fill their spare time with sport, music and various productions. Each year, there's a show in the Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House and a choreography competition for which students devise their own routines. Most importantly, there is also the school's end-of-year matinee on the main stage at Covent Garden. Last Christmas, the students took part in 20 performances of The Nutcracker, starring former White Lodge pupil Lauren Cuthbertson. "It's such a wonderful insight into what it is like to be a professional dancer," says Diane van Schoor. Other dance forms such as Irish, Scottish and morris dancing are also part of the training and last year, thanks to the success of Strictly Come Dancing, many were keen to learn the tango as well! Course fees It costs �30,000 a year to attend White Lodge, for which each child's family is means tested and there is also a government grant. The students come from all over the country and one or two from abroad. One of the students I meet is 15-year-old Isaac from Sheffield who joined the school aged 11. He is a very focused young man who has his eyes firmly set on graduating to the Royal Ballet Upper School in Covent Garden. 12-year-old Genna is equally focused. Her ambition is to dance the role of Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. All the boys and girls that come to White Lodge have a dream, which with their own dedication and the staff's encouragement has every chance of coming true.

The Royal Ballet School, White Lodge, Richmond Park, Richmond, Surrey TW10 5HR: 020 8392 8000


White Lodge Museum

Opened at the start of 2009 under the directorship of Jay Jolley, the Royal Ballet School's assistant director, the school's brand-new museum is a must for any ballet-lover. Arranged in a curving sweep, the blue and clear glass displays trace the development of ballet throughout the centuries. Starting in Russia and France in the 18th century, the path eventually leads to the opening of White Lodge Lower Ballet School in 1955. The displays showcase ballet shoes and dresses throughout the decades including original garments worn by Margot Fonteyn. Here, too, are interactive displays and film footage as well as a resource centre which is open to the public. It is an elegant space and a unique opportunity to learn all about the history of ballet. Entrance is free but by appointment only. Call 0208 392 8440 for more information.

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Historical notes

White Lodge has belonged to the Royal Family for most of its long and distinguished history. It was built in 1727 as a hunting lodge for George II, who stayed there with his consort Queen Caroline. While in the possession of George III, the house played host to many famous visitors including Lord Nelson before the Battle of Trafalgar. Queen Victoria and Albert were residents at the lodge in early 1861 and later gave it to their daughter Victoria Mary on her marriage to Prince George. It was here that their first child, the future Edward, Duke of Windsor, was born. Later, the impressive building became a private residence. The Lower Ballet School, under the directorship of its founder Dame Ninette de Valois, took possession of White Lodge in 1955 and has subsequently been recognised as one of the leading ballet schools in the world.


The White Lodge Redevelopment Appeal In 2005, an extensive development project was launched to transform White Lodge, making it a better environment for teachers, students and visitors. New classrooms, dormitories, a medical and physiotherapy zone, a library, a science room and two new dance studios have all been added. Work is on schedule to be completed next spring but there is still �3million to raise. If you would like to find out how to support White Lodge, please call Sarah Eliot-Cohen on 0207 845 7070 or e-mail

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