Legs up at the Parsonage

Kevin Berry follows the creation of a ballet about the Bront s and watches schools take part in associated workshops.

It was not all that surprising when, some 12 months ago, Christopher Gable told me he had begun to plan for a ballet about the Bront family.

Gable's Northern Ballet Theatre has its headquarters in a large Victorian mansion in Halifax and he has a house on the moor overlooking the town. He loves the stark, dramatic scenery and of course Halifax is just a few miles from Haworth and the Bront Parsonage.

Gable has been artistic director of Northern Ballet Theatre since 1987 and the key word in the company's title is "theatre". Gable has invested all his productions with a strong narrative and dramatic content. Feelings and emotions litter his conversations when he talks to his dancers - "Yes, yes, yes . . . but what are you feeling? Let me see it in your face!" The company's repertoire does include classical ballets but perhaps Gable is at his best creating a new work. Think of Cinderella, A Christmas Carol and A Simple Man and now The Bront s - all of them a fusion of dance, drama and ballet. Indeed the subtitle for The Bront s is "A New Dance Drama" and some scenes have dialogue.

Gable attempts to tell the story of the family through the life of Patrick Bront . Gloom and despondency? Not as much as you might imagine. Gable has stressed the creativity and the outstanding achievements of the Bront siblings.

There is one spellbinding scene when Emily is wandering the moors and Cathy and Heathcliffe appear on the stage as she begins to imagine them. There have to be moments of sadness but the ballet concludes with an upbeat, uplifting ending with the elderly Patrick alone on stage and then joined in a final dance by all his children.

Greta Dawson, the company's education officer, has prepared a programme of activities based closely on Gillian Lynne's choreography for The Bront s. She and her team offer workshops for schools wherever the company is touring and there are a number of special programmes at Halifax, Leeds and some dance centres.

I joined Greta at Haworth, where she was working with a group of 10 to 12-year-olds and some teenagers. Greta explained Gillian Lynne's choreography and there the rehearsal pianist played parts of the score. Worry not about the tuning of your school piano . . . I saw that pianist play with one hand, lift the piano lid and tighten some strings with the other.

Greta Dawson talks in simple dance and movement terms without using the vocabulary of ballet even when many members of a group are obviously ballet students. They begin by loosening up both physically and socially and then go into groups. They line up as if for a team race and she asks them to move across the room in a certain way, gradually increasing the complexity of the task until they have the basic elements of a composition. They split into trios or pairs and she asks them to put expressions onto their faces and into their bodies and gives them situations to create.

Her beginnings may seem regimented but they are not. This is one very alert dance teacher who has the ability to enthuse and bring out the best in even the most timid youngsters. The work is taken at such a brisk pace and so many are involved that there is never any thought of copying or hiding - children seem to want to express themselves and they enjoy doing it. Greta's intention is to have youngsters experiencing creation and performance with enjoyment and to a high standard.

I saw the younger ones making up dances based on characters created by the Bront children in their Gondal books - a soldier, a politician, an evil fairy and an Arabian princess. The teenagers were given the elements of a solo dance used to show Charlotte writing a letter to an aunt, begging for money to finance a stay in Brussels with Emily. Later the older dancers pretended to be the moors, making themselves into gorse bushes, waving grass or single trees, just as Gillian Lynne has planned for the Northern Ballet dancers.

Greta has many other scenes to draw on that should inspire children: the Irish wedding of the Bront parents, the Bront children feverishly creating in their parlour, Branwell working out at his boxing club and the poignant moment when the sisters each receive their one and only Valentine card.

I had to leave just as the older groups were putting the finishing touches to their dances before performing in front of their parents. They all looked good but I heard Greta still insisting, still encouraging: "Remember your job is to make something elegant and beautiful and balanced".

The Bront s is premiered at Leeds Grand on Monday. For details of the tour and educational workshops ring Northern Ballet Theatre on 01422 380420.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you