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Dancing to music of time

Scottish Ballet has undergone a renaissance and, 40 years on, education is at its core

Scottish Ballet has undergone a renaissance and, 40 years on, education is at its core

A vibrant blue illuminates the stage as ruby-clad dancers perform a cheeky little neo-classical number to Stravinksy. Then it's grey and disturbing as stark, sensual couples execute jagged and contorted movements to the harsh chaffing of Berio's "Duetti for two violins". Finally, Bach's "Air on a G String" lightens the atmosphere and a fresh set of dancers in silver, gold, red, and yellow fly across the stage. It's like the three ages of man; only this is 40 years in the life of Scottish Ballet.

Three short, contrasting pieces - "Rubies" by George Balanchine (1967), "Workwithinwork" by William Forsythe (1998) and "In Light and Shadow" by Krzysztof Pastor (2000) - provide an exhilarating celebration of Scotland's national ballet company and demonstrate its versatility.

They mark not only the survival of the company through harsh financial times in the late 1990s, when it looked threatened with extinction, but a glorious rising from the ashes. Change or reinvent yourself was the ultimatum from the Scottish Arts Council of the day, and changed it certainly has.

Among international stars such as Tomomi Sato from Japan, Sophie Martin from France and Erik Cavallari from Italy, a few local names stand out: Christopher Harrison from Kippen; Kara McLaughlin from Irvine; and Daniel Davidson from Edinburgh, all former pupils of the Dance School of Scotland.

A decade ago, Scotland's national dance school had started up at Knightswood Secondary, the first of a series of new specialist schools. But dance, it appeared, was not being taken seriously by the education establishment and its mention in the 5-14 PE curriculum did little to help.

"Teachers hoping to reinstate dance as a subject in its own right `do not have a snowball's chance in hell'," said Paul Dougal, the head of applied arts at Jordanhill College, at a Scottish Arts Council conference on dance education in 1997.

Provision was patchy, with pockets of excellence around the country - the Scottish Dance Theatre in Dundee, Ballet West in Oban. A few dancers would move straight from Knightswood to Scottish Ballet, but most would complete their training at the Royal Ballet School in London. There was no pathway through school and on to higher education, and even Scottish Ballet's role as a classical company was being questioned. Scotland's finest performers were forced to leave.

"If Scottish Ballet continues to be uncertain, our students will be less likely to come back to Scotland and audition," warned Josephine Holling, former head of dance at Knightswood.

How things have changed. A decade later, pupils can do SQA exams in Intermediate 1 and 2 dance, and Higher dance.

For gifted young dancers, Scottish Ballet's Junior Associates programme offers P6-7 pupils ballet body conditioning, national dancing and creative movement. Mid Associates - new this year - helps S1-2s to pursue a career in dance, and Senior Associates provides classical training and preparation for auditions.

Next year, they will be able to move on to a three-year BA in modern ballet, in association with Scottish Ballet. First auditions for the new degree at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama will be held in January, for courses starting in autumn 2010.

"Students will be trained to the high standards required of the modern ballet companies of today," declares the RSAMD website. Classes will include professional technique (classical ballet and contemporary dance), pas de deux, repertoire and choreography.

"Education is at the foundation of Scottish Ballet," says Ashley Page, the company's artistic director. "It is a privilege to have realised the vision that the company's founder, Peter Darrell, set out 40 years ago.

"This new degree means that we will be able to nurture and develop the exceptional talent that already exists in Scotland in a way never before possible, as well as attract brand new talent to the country from elsewhere."

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