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RSAMD ventures into wilds of outreach work

This month came the good news that the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama is turning towards outreach and educational work throughout Scotland.

For decades the academy has entertained Glasgow audiences with the performing arts of its young talent, often via the unfamiliar, fascinating byways of music, opera and theatre that can be fatal for the commercial stage to attempt. Now it has launched Renard, the new kids on the educational arts block.

Its debut at the Tramway was typically exotic. The core performance item was Stravinsky's Renard, conducted by Timothy Dean, a burlesque perhaps written only to poke a stick in the eyes of the opera establishment.

"If you call my last novelties acrobatic, what will you call Renard?"

chortled Diaghilev at his 1922 premi re, and you see his point. With a cimbalon in the on-stage orchestra, four immobile male singers behind their music stands, four dance-acrobats who do not speak and a playing time of 25 minutes, not many mainstream opera companies are likely to see it as a money spinner.

For the story, Stravinsky went to one of the oldest and most widespread of European farmyard folk tales. In his composite Russian version, the fox coaxes the cockerel down from its perch. Saved from death by the intervention of the cat and the goat, the bird is foolish enough to succumb to Renard's promises a second time and is saved at his last gasp by his two friends who, in the honest way of folk tales, kill the fox.

Putting the three strands of orchestra, singer and performer on stage and following Stravinsky's instructions of making them independent of each other had perhaps the unwanted effect of making the three parts compete for the audience's attention. It is a competition in which the excellent dancers, simply because they move, must always have the upper hand. Or more likely leg, in the case of Rae Piper (Cat) and Martha Harrison (Goat), who used their contortionist and aerialist training to eye-catching effect in what director Sian Williams identified as Stravinsky's "vibrant and erratic" characterisation.

The audience got two bites at this rare cherry, with one performance at the beginning of the evening and another at the end. Inside this Stravinsky sandwich we saw participants in the academy's junior music and drama teaching programmes.

In the Sound Wash project, leader Rachel Drury adopted a powerful back-to-basics thrust, starting from the premise that music is simply organised sounds and teaching children the neglected art of listening.

With work on Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf already behind some primary pupils as part of the RSAMD's GOALS interactive music project, 27 children from four Glasgow primaries (St Stephens, Sighthill, Sacred Heart and Shawlands) spent three days of the October break with eight student tutors investigating the Renard text for sound clues and background soundscape.

Then, given more tuned and untuned percussion instruments than you could shake a stick at, they emulated Stravinsky by creating a musical score to tell the story, in small groups and in full ensemble, using dialogue only where necessary.

Whenever educational arts goes into performance, education and the arts tend to go off in different directions, but Sound Wash successfully held them together by the obvious creative input and ownership shown by the children.

Sadly this quality was not apparent in Lead Us Not, the youth drama work, which gave the impression of having started from the wrong place and lost its way. It was a revival from July, when nine students of the Contemporary Theatre Practice BA degree course worked for a week with more than 60 members of the Junior Academy's summer school. Their reading of Renard had revealed a moralistic tale (hence their title) and they planned to investigate it under earnest banners asking such questions as "What is temptation?" and "How should we pay for our wrongdoings?"

Happily for us all, this scheme was abandoned somewhere along the line (though the banners hung on bravely) and teams of young people instead went through irrelevant circus and vaudeville routines.

This was the first outing of Renard (which was chosen as the title of the outreach work in homage to Stravinsky) and my first impressions are that the RSAMD has got a stretch limo but no road map; there is no outreach team at RSAMD, merely this project-based impulse with Mr Dean as artistic director. As he sees it, he is "the inheritor of a wild idea that was around before I came here nine years ago. It has value in the experience it gives our students, for the right kind of experience is training, is education."

Here's hoping he can tame the idea to be a friendly big beast in educational arts.

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