Perfect partners

For the first time in Britain, a dance school and a music conservatoire are teaming up to provide students with the best of both worlds. Amy McLellan reports
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The Independent Online

Despite the obvious synergy between the study of music and the study of dance, British conservatoires have, until now, been a strictly either/or choice. But the merger of Trinity College of Music in Greenwich with its Deptford neighbour, the contemporary dance school Laban, will create Britain's first dedicated conservatoire for both music and dance. Trinity Laban will be joining an established international sector, which counts among its number the Juilliard School in New York, the Ecole Nationale in Paris and the Royal Conservatory of the Hague in the Netherlands.

Despite the obvious synergy between the study of music and the study of dance, British conservatoires have, until now, been a strictly either/or choice. But the merger of Trinity College of Music in Greenwich with its Deptford neighbour, the contemporary dance school Laban, will create Britain's first dedicated conservatoire for both music and dance. Trinity Laban will be joining an established international sector, which counts among its number the Juilliard School in New York, the Ecole Nationale in Paris and the Royal Conservatory of the Hague in the Netherlands.

On the face of it, there couldn't be two more different organisations. Trinity, founded in 1872, sits amid the stately splendour of the 17th-century King Charles Court at the Old Royal Naval College. Five minutes down the road, sandwiched between the old factories and warehouses of Deptford Creek, is Laban, named after Rudolf Laban, the Hungarian choreographer who arrived in the UK in 1938 as a refugee from the Nazis. Laban occupies a landmark new building, winner of the Stirling Architecture Prize in 2003, which seems to reflect the fluid, flexible shapes of its student body.

Yet, as Trinity's director-designate Derek Aviss points out, when you look beyond the contrasting architectural styles, the two organisations are actually very similar. Both, for example, see themselves as training students for employment in a "portfolio career" (it is hard to earn a living by performance alone). In addition, both organisations consider themselves to be innovators, and both are dedicated to working closely with the local community. Trinity was the first British music college to establish a dedicated jazz course, not to mention leading the way in electro-acoustic music and providing the first Junior Conservatoire and Saturday school. Laban pioneered the first BA Honours degree in dance theatre and it is taking a similar lead in the emerging subject of dance science, which looks at the impact of dance training on physiology and psychology.

And, perhaps most importantly for the success of their link-up, both schools appreciate that there's more to making a merger work than organisational charts and head counts. "I've spent a lot of time working with multi-arts conservatoires around the world and it's not enough to have those art forms in co-existence," says Anthony Bowne, director-designate of Laban. "You really need to understand each other's cultures and work at the synergies."

For Trinity's music students, Laban offers an outlet for new compositions and the opportunity to learn new employment-enhancing skills, such as playing, conducting and composing for dancers. This is a specialist area. "It makes a real difference if a composer understands dance," says Laban spokeswoman Laraine Penson. "They need to consider bodies, and the timing is different."

Access to Laban's world-class pilates, physiotherapy and remedial massage services could also prove invaluable for music students who, depending on the instrument they play, can face a lifetime of bad backs and stiff necks from the rigours of practice.

For Laban's students, the merger will ensure access to specially commissioned music and the ability to perform to live, rather than, as is the norm in contemporary dance, recorded music. "In five years' time I hope our students will have the greatest musicality and musical literacy," says Bowne. "I'd like to develop a masters degree where composers and choreographers can work together."

Both sides are careful to stress that the merger won't dilute their specialist strengths. Aviss and Bowne will head their respective specialist schools, with the newly merged Trinity Laban led by Trinity's current principal Gavin Henderson. "We are not turning ourselves into a mixed arts institution where students sample a bit of this and a bit of that," says Aviss. "Trinity will continue to exist and so will Laban. Students will still retain their highly specialist training."

Even so, collaboration between different art forms - from dance to film to visual arts - is definitely on the agenda. "The merger is a new model for the sector," says Aviss. "We are going to leave it open for further collaborations with other specialist schools - not necessarily mergers, but partnerships that will continue to develop our students' employability." He adds: "We want to give our students the best possible chance in the competitive industry that is the performing arts, which means preparing them to play a part wherever their skills can find them work."

This is a key goal for both Trinity and Laban. Both provide plentiful opportunities for their students to gain performance experience, to experiment with different styles and to engage with local communities to develop the outreach skills that are now integral to a career in the performing arts. Professional skills training, covering vital skills such as self-promotion and finance, is also high on the agenda.

In addition to the artistic possibilities, the merger will bring financial benefits. Trinity currently acts as a conduit for Laban's share of premium funding from the Higher Education Funding Council, so the merger will stabilise the dance college's funding. The increased size of the new institution - Laban will add some 400 students to the 700 or so already studying at Trinity - should allow it to carry a little more weight. Any job losses are expected to be minimal, given the specialism of the two institutions.

The merger will also open doors to new sources of funding. "There are pots of money and public funding streams out there that we will now be able to apply for," says Aviss, highlighting a need for the merged body to invest in new buildings in this corner of south-east London. For, despite an attractive portfolio of venues - from Laban's 300-seat Bonnie Bird Theatre to Trinity's Blackheath Halls - the new institution lacks the physical studio and performance space where musicians and dancers can work together.

The creation of Trinity Laban looks set to enhance the bustling artistic hub of SE10, already home to artist's studios, dance companies, jazz festivals, comedy clubs and the University of Greenwich. There are high hopes that cellos and trumpets will head south down Creekside to Laban, while Lycra-clad dancers will take a trip in the opposite direction, looking to collaborate with musicians at Greenwich. It promises to be an exciting and enriching time for students, teachers and residents alike.

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