World Tutu Day Q&A, with Paul Clarke BA (HONS) PDTD DIP
2nd February 2022
Photographer: Jack Thomson
Dancer: Harry Theadora-Foster
Classical Ballet tutor, Paul Clarke trained at the Rambert School of Ballet, as it was then called. Upon graduation he joined the Deutsche Oper Am Rhein Ballet – Dusseldorf, Germany, dancing in ballets by George Balanchine, Jiri Kylian, Heinz Spoerli, Erich Walter and Roland Petit. He also danced with Malmo Staats Theatre, Sweden, and Hannover State Theatre, Germany, where he was a first soloist performing leading roles in both classical and contemporary ballets. In honour of World Tutu Day, we wanted to ask Paul a few questions about how he and Rambert School are breaking the taboos of classical ballet, whilst still maintaining the high standard of discipline and technique that are symbiotic to the art form.
Q: So, Paul, can you tell us how Rambert School is breaking the taboos of ballet?
Rambert School’s principles are built on nurturing the individual and listening to the student voice. We have listened to students in the past express how difficult they had found “fitting in” to the gendered binary ballet stereotype, during their training. We reflected on our teaching practice and thought how we could develop the way ballet is taught to make it more inclusive and relevant. As a result, we have adapted our approach to make our teaching in ballet gender neutral.
I felt this was an extremely important step for Rambert School to make, given society’s enlightened, and generally accepted views on LGBTQ+ policies. It feels like a positive move forward educationally and socially, to what can be perceived as an elitist and stereotypical dance form.
Personally, I looked to change the language used in a ballet class and how the binary “labels”, such as men/women, seemed limiting and un-inclusive. It did take a bit of practice, but now I address the students as “folks” or “everyone” which seems like a small thing, but is very empowering for the students and it’s had a real positive impact.
Of course, steps in a ballet class needn’t be gendered today either, as there is really no reason that we shouldn’t learn a certain step just because of our gender. I began coaching all the students in virtuoso steps that had been viewed as stereotypically male. When speaking to my female-identifying ballet dancer friends and colleagues, they all told me that they enjoyed jumping and keeping up with their male counterparts, so agreed that students shouldn’t be limited in their training.
It took some students a little getting used to, but they embraced the change, and the inclusivity has been visibly beneficial. I remember after one class, I was walking from the studio behind a group of students and one said, “Today we did boys steps!” to which I replied with a smile, “No, you just did some other steps!”
Q: How do you think gender neutral classes have enhanced the student’s training?
I think the gender neutral classes have had a positive message of inclusivity and acceptance to everyone. When I was a student at the School, I remember feeling accepted for the first time, which had an impact on my well-being, learning and training. I hope this is the same for our students today.
Q: Has it been a challenge to change your pattern of teaching, or has it been a liberating experience?
It is always a challenge to change old, ingrained habits but it has been very liberating, and I have been very touched by the student’s positive response and their complete acceptance. I think we must always be able to listen to and learn from younger generations. I am very proud of the way all the staff have got behind this and that this approach has been so openly adopted. Go Rambert School!!
Q: How do you go about conducting a gender neutral Pas de Deux class?
This is definitely one of those challenges, as this partnering style is by its nature gendered. I think we must see this within a historical and traditional context and use the skills that one learns as a tool for partner work in all other genres of dance.
We have started same sex partnering and we are constantly reflecting on the language we use. We are learning to adapt as much as the students, to give them the best all-round training.
Q: Tell us how you went about creating and choreographing a gender neutral solo for the students’ assessments?
The thought process behind the creation of the gender neutral solo formed the basis of my research project which was supported by the Conservatoire of Dance and Drama.
Rambert School has a long and proud history of nurturing the individual, to produce creative and forward thinking artists and dance practitioners that are both adaptable and relevant in an ever evolving dance and social environment. It was with this aim in mind that I proposed the creation of a gender neutral dance solo, highlighting further Rambert School’s accessibility and inclusive stance.
As part of their coursework, students are required to perform classical ballet and contemporary dance solos. Historically, the ballet solos, are gender specific and classical repertoire.
I wanted to provide a more nuanced and diverse performance vehicle for the students that have disclosed a gender fluid or non-binary status.
Our Artistic Director, Amanda Britton, suggested I collaborate with Nicole Guarino, a former pupil and contemporary dance teacher at the school. This was a match made in heaven and unusual for ballet and contemporary staff to collaborate in this way, but it made perfect sense! So, the piece was choreographed very quickly combining elements from us both.
I wanted the music to be celebratory. I’d had a piece of music at the back of my mind after seeing Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet Gloria in 1980. The music is by Francis Poulenc for soprano, chorus, and orchestra. The section I used is Domini Fili Unigenite.
I wanted a piece that had a strong sense of parity to the contemporary solos and for the students to explore the main choreography and go even further allowing them to put their own personal stamp on the piece, as they do in their contemporary solo performances.
I stipulated to the students that certain steps and accents remained from the original choreography, but the rest of the choreography could be their own. Or, if they preferred, perform the solo in its original form.
The level of creativity and outstanding performances was amazing, and I think the students had a blast and a real sense of achievement. The feedback was very positive and is something that we’ll be repeating going forward.
Q: How did the first years adapt to performing a gender neutral corps de ballet piece, for their assessment?
To be honest, I don’t think it was given much thought at all. Which is a very positive thing. I hope this acceptance stems from the gender neutral aspect of their ballet classes.
Q: Do you think changing Rambert School’s uniform policy, to allow students to decide on the ballet attire they wear in class, rather than a generic uniform, has been a positive step?
If you feel confident in what you are wearing, then that confidence will come out in your demeanour. Again, I think it was time to move on and allow students to express themselves in their ballet classes as they were used to doing in their contemporary classes. There are some basic rules; garments must be fitted to work with the line of the body, maintaining the discipline of ballet, but I think this is a very positive step forward and promotes inclusivity and a sense of individuality.
Q: As wardrobe master, do you feel you have greater scope for creativity when piecing together garments for gender neutral choreography and photo shoots?
Yes, I do. I feel liberated and more able to experiment and be open to ideas that I might not have thought possible before. Also, our students are so creative, sometimes I don’t have to do anything… just sit back and celebrate them.
Q: Obviously the Rambert School training is 50:50 ballet and contemporary. Is there anything else you’d like to share about what makes ballet at Rambert School so special?
How long have you got?! As I mentioned before, for Rambert School it’s not just about producing excellent, creative, and expressive dancers, it’s also about nurturing the individual and listening to the student voice so that they may become their authentic selves as people, working within a creative, safe, and inclusive space. We are a “Family” looking after each other and I think that is something that sets us apart from other dance schools.
Rambert School changes lives for the better.