The Royal Ballet School

I don't think I'd ever been to Richmond Park before my visit to the Royal Ballet School a couple of weeks ago.  It's rather spectacular: 2,500 acres of land in south west London which could almost be open countryside, except that it's more picturesque, with groves of ancient oaks that could have come out of a painting by Caspar David Friedrich.  It also famously has a large herd of deer, and a dog called Fenton, but I didn't see either of them as I made my way from the station.  

My destination was the White Lodge, a beautiful Georgian building which stands alone in the middle of the park.  It's a former royal hunting lodge, built for George II, and used by successive British monarchs (Queen Victoria was fond of it, and Edward VIII was born there) before being handed over to the Royal Ballet School in 1955. 

But it doesn't always look as ominous as it does in my photo! Sometimes it looks like this:

                                                                                                                              Photo: Royal Ballet School
The White Lodge is actually the Lower School, catering for pupils from 11-16 years old: after that they move to the Upper School, next to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.  The students have all gained their places there because of their dancing skills, and come from a wide range of backgrounds.  In addition to their ballet training they study all the usual subjects, and the English department like to invite authors in to encourage reading.  I spent the morning talking to  years 7,8 and 9, and then in the afternoon spoke to some of the year 10 students.  

I've taken recently to drawing a few pictures during my talks, to demonstrate the sort of thing I used to do all the time when I was working as an illustrator.  The evil alien Gollarks from Kjartan Poskitt's Murderous Maths series are pretty well suited to drawing big on a flip-chart, and since I was at the Royal Ballet School I decided to do a ballerina Gollark...

That opened the floodgates, because when my talk was over and book and random-bit-of-paper signing time rolled around, everybody seemed to want a ballet Gollark.  I've never drawn so many tutus in my life.  And in honour of the impending launch of Goblins I drew The Dance of the Sugar Plum Goblin too...

In between talks came a very nice lunch, and then Suzanne Gunton, Head of the English Department showed me around the school and told me a little of its history.  One wing houses the White Lodge Museum and Ballet Resource Centre, a treasure-trove of ballet history which deserved far more time than I was able to send there.  There were displays about the White Lodge and its inhabitants as well as about the history and development of  Classical ballet and of the school itself, with many artefacts, photographs, videos and drawings. (The red costume in the case here is from a design by Rex Whistler.)  You can take a virtual tour of the museum here. It is open to the public, but booking is essential - details on the link above.

There are other relics and treasures all over the building, including this bronze statue of Dame Margot Fonteyn.  The students have a tradition of touching her finger for luck as they pass, which is why it's paler than the rest of her.

While I was doing my talks and signings, I kept noticing the view out of the class room windows to those wintry oak-woods.  Living and learning in this beautiful building, in these surroundings, must be like going to school in Rivendell, and you might imagine that the pupils here would seem different from those I usually meet.  They didn't, though; they were normal kids; pleasant, polite, happy to giggle at a ballet-dancing Gollark, and ready to chime in with good questions and ideas when asked.  It was only as I was leaving at the end of the day that I caught a glimpse through an open door of a ballet class in progress. There were some of the children who'd been listening to me burble on about goblins and Traction Cities that morning, busy practicing their art with the most wonderful grace and discipline, a lovely image to take away with me from this most extraordinary school.

Thank you to Charlotte Taylor for inviting me, to Suzanne Gunton and Suzanne Watt Bertoni for looking after me so well, Richard Johnson for giving me a lift back to Richmond Station in the afternoon, and to Rob Green of the Maths department who helped out with my sessions and took the photos of me at work (and didn't mind too much when I said 'Nobody likes maths').  He also put together this collage of images from the day...

All images are used here with kind permission of the Royal Ballet School