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Inner-city kicks

If you want to dance in 'Swan Lake' you have to begin as a cygnet in a rather smaller pond. Maureen O'Connor found the Royal Ballet recruiting tomorrow's stars in the uncharted waters of working class multi-racial Hammersmith

In the middle of the sprawling White City estate there lies a dour brick building, its windows protected by sturdy wire mesh. This educational fortress in Hammersmith in west London is known as the Bryony Centre. Inside there is magic at work.

A multi-racial group of eight- to eleven-year-olds from local primary schools tumble into the hall, their faces lit up with excitement. Five minutes later the girls have changed into vivid red leotards, the boys into red T-shirts and skin-tight shorts. They are silent, posture impeccable, concentration absolute.

This is the Royal Ballet's Chance to Dance project which visits schools in Hammersmith, Fulham and Lambeth to bring ballet to a new generation and seek out potential dancers.

This year's auditions attracted 23 children from seven schools, ranging from girls obviously thrilled at the whole idea of becoming a ballerina to boys who would look more at home down the road at Queens Park Rangers.

Earlier in the term a team of Royal Ballet dancers had presented demonstrations for all the Year 3 children in the participating schools, introducing them to classical ballet and explaining the demands that the training and life of a dancer impose. All pupils were then invited to take part in a dance session from which the team selects candidates for the one-day audition for regular classes at the Bryony Centre.

That's fine for the chosen few, but in this project all pupils can benefit from the programme. The Royal Ballet offers open days, family days and performances, workshops and subsidised tickets to shows. And an open entry Dance Club provides creative dance experiences for seven to 13-year-olds across the community. One of the aims is to increase participation of ethnic minority children in ballet.

Pamela Singh, head of Pope John RC Primary School, is enthusiastic: "This is a marvellous experience for the children, parents and the whole community. One year we had seven children in the auditions and I must have been the proudest head in London."

Pupils get the chance not only to see performances but to talk to the dancers and see the make-up and costumes. "It makes it all come alive for them," says Pamela Singh. "We took 63 children to the ballet last year and I think by now we have seen Romeo and Juliet, Giselle, Swan Lake, Peter and the Wolf. If we want to excel at the arts in this country we must get ethnic minority children involved."

Gussie Andersen, head of Wormholt Park School, agrees: "This is something children living in this area would not normally see. At first they were a bit over-awed, but then they were amazed and delighted."

Several children on the project have gone on to vocational training at specialised dance schools. Darryl Jaffray, head of education for the Royal Ballet, says the enthusiasm is shared by the dancers. "We are committed to working with people who may not know anything about ballet, or who think they hate it. And we do find talent, although we are not always able to build on it. It broke my heart recently when we selected a child in Lambeth who never turned up for the classes."

Parental backing is crucial. Wilma Dunn, whose son Daniel passed the auditions last year, is now paying for him to attend the Arts Educational School, although the fees are a struggle. "It is difficult for a boy," she says. "Dan does karate and plays football, but there were a few who teased him about his dancing."

"Ballet has traditionally recruited from narrow social and ethnic spectrum," says Brenda Garratt-Glassman, who was supervising the Bryony auditions. "But there is no point taking on token black dancers. We are the Royal Ballet and we are elitist in the sense that we are looking for excellence. That's not the same as being inaccessible."

She sees the Chance to Dance project as a long-term solution to the shortage of ethnic minority performers. "We have sent nine or ten to vocational schools who probably wouldn't have got there otherwise."

The child who had the professionals excited at the auditions this year was a slim Afro-Caribbean boy with dreadlocks and a personality and a way of moving that caused one professional to observe simply "Wow!" His father, waiting outside nervously, was delighted he had been auditioned.

This first audition, however, is only the first of many hurdles. Some will drop out at puberty, when girls in particular may grow to be the wrong shape or weight. Boys must develop the adult physique that will allow them to jump and lift their partners.

Classical dance asks the body to do things most people simply cannot, which is why the auditioning process includes an examination by a physiotherapist to make sure children will not be physically damaged by the experience.

"We are looking for great flexibility," says instructor Tricia Penfold. Even at age seven or eight, a simple touch-your-toes test showed some children could keep right on going when their fingers met the floor, while others could barely get there. Unfortunately, some children might be very keen but they are not physically capable of the training without risking damage to their backs, legs or feet.

And so to the moment of truth, as the Royal Ballet team decided who to accept from today's audition. A few children were accepted without dissent, another group rejected equally easily: the work they had done on music and movement, as well as the physical check-up, left no doubt either way.

For others, interest, enthusiasm, talent and fitness were all weighed in the balance. One boy made it because he was one of a group of friends who, the teachers thought, might keep each other involved. A girl was rejected because she would only be in the country for a year and would not profit long-term.

In the end about half, equally divided between boys and girls and widely spread across the ethnic groups, were accepted for the regular weekly class.

A handful may go further, but just one in a million will end up being a star.

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