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Armadillo of the arts

The Wales Millennium Centre houses a big family of professional artists, but pupils can make themselves at home there too, writes Martin Whittaker

Since the new Wales Millennium Centre opened, Viv John's phone has hardly stopped ringing. A former music teacher, she is now the education manager at what has been called Cardiff's answer to the Sydney Opera House.

"There's been massive interest from schools," she says. "It's a huge thing for the arts in Wales."

The pound;106 million centre opened in November to great acclaim, its dome resembling an immense armadillo and dominating the Cardiff Bay skyline.

It is finished in materials that reflect Wales's industrial heritage - steel from Pontypool, slate from the North Wales quarries, glass from Swansea. Inside, it is all sweeping curves, its striped wooden galleries echoing the strata of the Welsh coastline. It has a vast 1,900-seat auditorium, but offers schools more than a venue for opera and musicals.

The centre is home to Wales's foremost arts organisations, including the Welsh National Opera, the youth organisation Urdd Gobaith Cymru, the dance company Diversions, and Academi, the Welsh agency for the promotion of literature.

A visit begins with a tour of the building, including information on its architecture and a look backstage. Pupils also visit Arts Explorer, an interactive gallery where they can learn about acoustics, stage lighting and musical textures. The main part of the day is spent in workshops, and ends with a performance of whatever is showing on the day.

The centre also offers half-day visits and teachers' placement days that provide information and training on WMC's work across the broader curriculum.

It also does outreach work, and can tailor visits to suit particular needs.

But visits are not restricted to the arts - the design of the building is a resource in itself, and the centre provides a resource pack on its construction.

Another resident at WMC is Touch Trust, a charity that offers touch and movement therapy for people with profound disabilities. It welcomes visits from special schools and runs a therapy suite with state-of-the-art facilities. Inside, pupils can relax on cushions and listen to relaxing music, or join in with percussion sessions using a range of bells, shakers and tambourines.

Andy Wilkins, the charity's business manager, says: "In everything pupils do, they get applauded and encouraged. They are made to feel that they're doing something worthwhile."

Day visits to the WMC, including a performance, cost pound;10 per pupil; half-day visits pound;4 per pupil. For more details, telephone 02920 634632; email: viv.john@wmc.org.uk; www.wmc.org.uk

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