John Byrne launches a new ballet syllabus in Australia

How do the parents of dance students in Australia choose the right ballet syllabus for their children?

World of mouth and networks often send them in the direction of the Royal Academy of Dance and Cecchetti methods, both established in Australia in the 1930s, although almost every subsequent decade has brought new ballet syllabi to a nation keen to explore other ways to approach the most demanding dance technique.

An article in the just published December/January issue of Dance Australia shows that almost 20 Australian organisations now offer a classical ballet syllabus, with the most recent presented to dance teachers just a few months ago.

Created by the well-known teacher and examiner, John Byrne, the new syllabus was developed for vocational students who are embarking on a serious study of the technique and is being rolled out in three parts, first the syllabus itself, then a training DVD on posture, placement and basic elements of technique, and finally a training DVD focusing on the art and anatomy of port de bras.

John Byrne’s distinguished career began in 1979 when he worked as a teacher with Anne Woolliams, then dean of dance at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne.

He later moved to Sydney where he taught at various ballet schools.

John’s international career began when Julia Farron, then the artistic director of the RAD, asked him to train as a major examiner for the Academy.

In 1991 he was appointed artistic director of the RAD and chairman of the Board of Examiners.

John returned to Australia and in 1997 was the founding director of the Ballet and Dance Academy at the Sydney grammar school, SCECGS Redlands.

His peripatetic career meant that he met, examined or taught many students and teachers in many countries around the world.

I can still remember him demonstrating at the Academy’s headquarters in Darlinghurst Road, Sydney in the 1990s, as he showed trainee teachers the correct way to teach the Elementary exam port de bras.

As John demonstrated, he described the movement not only with his arms but also with three words. This port de bras, he said, was a little like a “goddess at work”.The goddess element was a John-joke, not to be taken seriously. Yet it resonated with me and I think many others as both true and funny at the same time.

Memories of John ‘at work’ came back a few weeks ago at the dance school, Academy Ballet, where he presented his new syllabus to Sydney teachers.

He led two young Melbourne students, Emilie and Ethan, through the syllabus, describing in detail all the exercises, from the barre to the reverence.The centre exercises encompassed port de bras, pirouettes, adage, allegro, technical enchainements, batterie, pointe work and a reverence for both girls and boys.

The syllabus emphasises basic training that he describes as “unencumbered by choreographic overlay”.

This means there’s a separation between the technical allegro section in which all of the basic allegro steps are studied individually, and the dance enchainement section where the student is encouraged to explore space, floor patterns, and various styles of movement, in a more choreographed setting.

His aim is to ensure that such basics as posture and weight placement are correct from the start, and “form a structural platform on which the students can build their technique”.

John has always been known for his emphasis on epaulement and that can be seen in his new syllabus work.

As he says, if epaulement is not taught as an integral part of technique from the beginning, it’s unlikely to be established at all and will remain as an ‘add on’ whenever a student dancer remembers to apply it.

Some of John’s pertinent points during the demonstration included:

“I believe in the value of facing the barre particularly at this stage of training.

“The danger of any syllabus is that process gets chucked out the window”.

He has separated demi pliés and grand pliés in two different barre exercises because he believes that the training of the demi-plié, a vital element of technique, is not given enough emphasis and is too often the victim of a ‘drop and pop’ execution in two counts to a ‘soft’ 3/4 accompaniment.

In ronds de jambe a terre, his exercise aims to replace the prevalent “dream like” mood that students tend to adopt with a much more dynamic approach.

His battements frappes emphasise the need to return the thigh to a fully rotated and secure placement to avoid what he calls, “the swinging door” effect, while his battement fondu a terre avoids what he calls “the dropped back” frequently seen in fondu exercises.

There are two centre port de bras exercises, one with curved shapes, the other with extended lines. His aim with both is to steer clear of “the prepare and park” rigidity of many port de bras and to encourage an expressive flow of movement

The syllabus offers what he calls “a richer diet of pirouettes”, some with fluid and calm movement at the start, such as balancés.

Teachers’ courses in the new syllabus will begin in Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney and Bangkok next month.

John’s Facebook page has more details on the syllabus for teachers and students.

Time will tell whether another ballet syllabus will lead parents and/or teachers to a new pathway, but in dance, as in other performing arts, it’s always worth challenging the status quo and exploring new directions.