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No more tip-toeing around

Scottish Ballet wants its latest productions to reach not just its fans. Miranda Fettes reports

ballet is not just about dance. That is the message Ailsa-Mary Gold, the education director of Scottish Ballet, is keen to convey to school pupils. It touches on many curriculum areas: drama, music, art and design, English, physical education.

Ms Gold has been responsible for repositioning the national dance company's education strategy. The primary aims are to extend the audience and appeal of ballet, both geographically and across the age spectrum.

"When I was appointed in October 2005, it was to reposition education at the core of the company," she says. "Scottish Ballet has had this massive artistic renaissance under the direction of Ashley Page. We want education to be integral to what we do."

The education programme has been awarded pound;148,000 by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation to back two specific projects: DanceWise, a new programme designed for secondary school pupils, and Outside-In, a range of special matinees and lecture demonstrations.

"We're keen to extend our national coverage and we want to broaden our education work from primary into secondary and beyond," says Ms Gold. "It has tended to be Glasgow-focused."

Outside-In was launched in April at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre. Four hundred pupils from eight local authorities attended. The aim is to enable people who would not normally attend ballet to see a production deconstructed, with explanations of the choreography, artistic inspiration, music, lighting, design and movement motifs, followed by passages or a full run of the pieces. It concludes with a question and answer session with members of the company.

Ms Gold says the demonstrations give pupils a much broader understanding of all the elements which go into a ballet production.

"The biggest feature is getting enhanced information from the whole company," she explains. "For them to sit in the theatre talking to our artistic directors while dancers are running through it informally in the background is so exciting. We did a wee feature with the orchestra, brought the curtain down and demonstrated some of Othello."

DanceWise focuses on "collaborative narrative work" across different curricular subjects, working predominantly with art and design and music departments.

While the company was working on its production of Cinderella earlier this year, the education department presented a tailored talk for secondary school pupils. With the S1-3 group, they looked at design: set design, costume design and how the narrative was approached. With S4-6 pupils, they focused on music, studying the whole production in greater depth.

"We take visuals costumes, fabric swatches, set designs, photographs and we play music from the current production," says Ms Gold. "It's to get them interested in and engaged in the work of our company, and it's about making informed choices about dance.

"This gives young people who wouldn't normally have a way into dance a route in. If they then decide ballet's not for them, at least they're making an informed decision. It's a way of developing and investing in our future audiences, and giving them a much richer experience of ballet."

Just before the company was to perform its Spring programme a mixed bill in Aberdeen, Ms Gold and colleagues delivered a workshop at Mackie Academy in Stonehaven. Ms Gold says the whole class including boys had a "completely different perception" of ballet afterwards.

The pupils, who were focusing on drama, learned about stage design, technical theatre and choreography. In music, the workshops can tackle anything from Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev to contemporary composers and techno music.

Ms Gold and her education colleagues at Scottish Ballet will develop resources for teachers over the next two years. In 2007, to coincide with the company's production of Sleeping Beauty, in-service training will look at writing ideas and art and design, rather than simply delivering dance in-service, which other organisations also provide. "There are so many access points, and so many cross-curricular ideas we could pull out and follow up," she says.

With competing dance organisations vying for audiences and interest, and to reflect its national status, it appears that Scottish Ballet has responded by diversifying its education offering. And with audience figures picking up after years of difficulty, it may be one of the best pirouettes it ever did.


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