Elite training is not a concept that always goes down well in Sweden, where equality is cherished. Embracing such liberal values can have side effects though. Swedish ballet is in crisis – the result, say ministers, of the Royal Swedish Ballet School accepting too many students who simply were not good enough.
The school will now be turned into an elite training college, accepting only the very best. The number of study places will be cut by a third, strict dance exams will be regularly held and every year the principal will be allowed to discharge pupils who do not fulfill the requirements. The depth of the crisis was revealed five years ago, although it has taken until now for the government to make changes. Graduating students from the school were preparing to dance for Madeleine Onne, then head of the Royal Opera, in the hopes of getting a job. The students – and many more in the Swedish dance world along with them – were shocked when none of them were deemed to be good enough. Sweden’s ballet education had deteriorated to a level where the dancers couldn’t be employed by the country’s main institution for classical dance, and the contracts went to foreign dancers instead.
How had it come to this? In the 1980s ballet training was moved from the Royal Opera to the municipal school. Many of the regular schools’ rules applied: for instance, the schools were paid according to the amount of pupils they had, not according to how good they were or whether certain goals were achieved. The classes had to be filled for the school’s economy to work, even though all pupils weren’t qualified. The teachers had to focus on achieving an acceptable average level for all, instead of focusing on the few, exceptional talents.
“If a fantastic institution such as the Opera ballet is to work, we need an elite training that leads to that,” said Jan Björklund, leader of the Liberal Party and the country’s education minister. “We can’t have the regular Swedish jantelag-thinking about everyone having the right to participate,” he said, referring to the old principle, which more or less means that nobody should appear to be better than others.
Dance isn’t the only area where Björklund has introduced elite classes. In a controversial move, he has also made it possible for talented pupils to study in specialised classes for mathematics and natural sciences, starting this autumn. These are areas where the Swedish school is lagging behind, Björklund noted, and he hopes that the system will improve the country’s future competitiveness.
Equality is a fantastic principle. In the Swedish school system, it guarantees that basic education is free and available for everyone. But for the best and most talented, it can become a force that holds back instead of pushing forward. Björklund’s plans for the Swedish school have been criticised as elitist, but in the end, isn’t it best for everyone – even the children – to recognise what they’re good at, and less good at? Only then will they be able to reach their full potential.