Features | By Anthony Coleman

Urdang takes centre stage for new academic year

One of the UK’s most prestigious performing arts academies is now part of City. It is an acquisition that promises to elevate the student experience and enhance the University’s reputation in the creative industries.


Appalled by the devastating effects of apartheid in 1960s’ South Africa, Leonie Urdang left her native country for a new life in London. The young performer was driven by a desire to live in a fairer, more inclusive society – and in particular wanted to use her talent to break down the barriers she saw in the world of dance.


So, in 1970, she set up the Urdang Academy, trailblazing an approach that championed diversity and inclusivity – something the performing arts industry has only recently caught up to.


More than half a century on and Urdang is one of the foremost centres for musical theatre, with a core focus on singing, dancing and acting. It has a formidable reputation, with alumni working on TV and West End smash hits, as well as alongside some of music’s biggest names, including Beyoncé and Kylie Minogue.

Investing in the future


Earlier this year, City announced it had acquired the academy – now known simply as Urdang – and its Islington home in the old Finsbury town hall. The move forms an integral part of the University’s ambitious plans to develop its reputation in the creative industries. Urdang, along with City’s renowned music offering, form a new Department of Performing Arts.


“Our industry has taken a hammering in the past few years,” says Justine Walmsley, Urdang’s Director. “So many independent academies have closed and I am sure more will follow – arts is always the area where money is cut first. What this acquisition shows is that City recognises the importance of the arts in our society and is willing to invest in their future and in the future of performers – and that is huge.”


Urdang currently offers a three-year undergraduate degree in Professional Dance and Musical Theatre, with around 140 students in each year. Those budding performers will now have access to all the facilities, resources and support available to other City students, giving them the full university experience.


It will also allow Urdang to welcome international students for the first time, collaborate with City’s music students and expand its courses into areas such as stage production and choreography.

‘Thinking performers’

Urdang students performing on stage.

What definitely won’t be changing, adds Justine, is Urdang’s core values and approach to teaching, which are a fundamental part of its identity and reputation.


“We will still do what we do best,” she says. “We’ll still be creative, ambitious and flamboyant, and you’ll still feel that energy and excitement when you come here. It is just that now we’ve got greater resources to back up our ambition and take the student experience to another level.


“When we first started talking to City, it was almost like it was meant to be, because our ethos and values were so closely aligned. We offer open, forward-thinking, inclusive learning and are always striving to respond to and address the issues we see in society and our industry, particularly as they relate to diversity and gender.


“Unlike other performing arts academies who can mould their students into a certain identity, we don’t strip ours of that spark or edge we see in their first auditions. Our goal is to train talent so that when our students leave us, they are not only the best performers they can be, but they are also strong, well-rounded individuals. One of my colleagues said that what we produce are ‘thinking performers’, and that is spot on. We are focused on practice, but also on giving them a contextual understanding that informs their work, helps them become better performers and gives them a voice to effect change.”

The next level


Justine says that a critical part of Urdang’s success has been its faculty. “I am humbled by the sheer talent of the people we have here, some of whom are former students themselves who continue to perform professionally. We really are like a family.


“Society needs the arts. We need the flamboyance and fabulousness – to be expressive and to entertain, to bring joy and laughter and wonderment. We need entertainment in our lives. For us to be part of City and take what we do to the next level is incredibly exciting. It is a privilege to be a part of it.”