Blake inspires dance with feeling

Denyse Presley finds out how one dance company takes an emotive story and expresses it through movement

The Tabula Rasa Dance Company is one of the few, if not the only, contemporary dance companies in Scotland producing shows for children. Its latest production, The Birdcatcher, which begins a Scottish tour tomorrow in Musselburgh, is aimed at six-year-olds and older children.

The story was inspired by lines from William Blake and tells of a hunter who catches birds to sell at market. "But it's not a straightforward fable. Instead it's about how something joyful and imaginative cannot be contained," says writer and director Claire Pencak, who founded Tabula Rasa in 1999.

The performance uses elements of puppetry, dance and percussion and new characters have been added to the story conceived some 15 years ago. The result is more child-orientated than the original.

"The hunter is more humorous. We now have a fat man at the market who obviously buys a bird to eat, while an elegant lady wearing feathers will pluck it for its plumage," says Ms Pencak.

As the hunter leaves the market, he spots a blind girl begging and gives her his last bird, which she sets free. From then, the hunter is haunted by the bird's song. Trapping it later, he puts it in a cage where it refuses to sing.

Ultimately the hunter releases the bird and we see him playing an instrument, signalling how he is changed by the experience.

The hunter is represented by a life-size puppet into which puppeteer Shane Connolly climbs. Lighting picks up the contours of the mask, changing expressions.

The production is all about suggestion. A back-lit white fan represents the moon, a gold fan is the dawn and others suggest birds.

Visual artist and set designer Keiko Mukaide works in glass and light. Tiny shards are strung along cat gut that can be manipulated across the stage by dancer Shamita Ray to represent small birds in a variation on puppetry.

An education programme of in-service training and schools workshops supports the production. "My aim is that schools will do the workshops and then see the performance," says Ms Pencak.

The workshops focus on showing feelings through movement and rhythm and children will work in twos and small groups.

"I will give them scenes such as the capture, involving the hunter and the hunted, and ask them to express the different emotions of the characters through their body," says Ms Pencak.

"As girls get older, they get an idea of what dance is. They think it's learning sequences," she says. "So often boys or those who haven't attended formal dancing classes do well in the workshops.

"It's creative rather than technical but it is not completely free-form. It requires a different kind of technique.

"Children want to move, they don't want to be sitting around, so it's about giving them stimuli and letting them work it out for themselves."

"Some children find it hard and some blossom, even if they're not academic in a conventional sense but can take on ideas and work well with them. It's nice to see their classmates and teachers finding that potential in them."

There will also be a chance at the workshops for the children to see some of the exotic percussion instruments musician Mike Zolker uses in the show. These include a berimbau, which resembles an archer's bow. It is a martial instrument used in Angola and Brazil and has a rich woody sound. The taiko, a Japanese drum, requires dance movements from the percussionist.

"Like brain gym, dance lets us make right and left brain connections," says Ms Pencak, "and the more often we do it, the faster we learn."

'The Birdcatcher' nationwide tour starts at the Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, on September 28.Tabula Rasa's 2003 children's production is based on Coleridge's 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner' and is for children aged eight and over. A show for three to six-year-olds is planned for 2004.Tabula Rasa Dance Company, tel 0131 476 2737e-mail

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