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Salute to boys' ballet

Norma Cohen sees a top dance company help inspire a school.

Two hundred boys whoop and cheer as the curtain rises on Birmingham Royal Ballet's triple bill at Bristol Hippodrome. A skidding ballerina turned upside down in Les Patineurs receives a gasp. A triple cartwheel in Baiser de la Fee earns a ripple of applause. By the showstopping finale - a smoulderingly seductive Nutcracker Sweeties hyped up to Ellington's Jazz Nutcracker - they're knocked into superlatives: "really brilliant; absolutely fabulous".

For these 11-year-olds at Hartcliffe Comprehensive, Bristol, set in the middle of a notoriously troubled estate, Birmingham Royal Ballet's subsidised schools matinee and all-boys ballet sessions are their inauguration into another world.

Alongside contemporary companies such as English National Ballet and Rambert Dance, BRB has built up a relationship with the school, part of an initiative to transform it into a centre for opera, dance, music and sport, funded by Bristol businesses and charitable trusts.

It's the brainchild of arts co-ordinator and former special needs teacher Vic Ecclestone, 25 years at the school and just voted Disney Channel's Teacher of the Year, winning Pounds 8,000 for his school. He's forming a charity to co-ordinate activities and has arranged for BRB to work with junior schools during its residency, nurturing potential dancers.

BRB dancer Gareth Griffiths introduces Hartcliffe boys to send-up Nutcrackers like Candy Cane and Sugar Rum Cherry.

After initial giggling, boys fall into a bout of Peanut Officer's all-American, Boys Brigade drill, grappling with basics of spatial awareness and rhythm via smart marching, press-ups and sit-ups.

Inspired by pianist Andrew Kirsty, they leap into the Floreadors' Latin formations, emulate Chinoiserie's snaky hips, break taboos of physical contact to work on a partner sequence ending in rock'n roll.

Choreographer Chris Lewis-Smith arrives to lead an after-school rehearsal for Hartcliffe Boys Dance Company. This group of 14 and 15-year-olds premi red a reworking of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and toured it to schools. As You Are, performed at Bristol Cathedral for the UN 50th anniversary celebrations and filmed for mainstream cinema, deals with the suicide of singer-songwriter Kurt Cobain.

Ecclestone outlines company plans: self-managing junior and senior dance companies; a go ahead from dance band Massive Attack to work on their material; a fees-paid performance at a Nat West Life Assurance party.

The group rehearses Angels Unplugged for a dance festival at the Hippodrome and, pending funding, a Welsh exchange and European tour.

With a two-year track record and four contemporary pieces in its repertoire, the group is disciplined, falling into a sophisticated rolling and lifting, a mix of casual movement and savage attack.

Aiming for an hour-long show by May, he's creating Rites of Passage which will explore alternatives to Western ideas of coming of age.

Chris Lewis-Smith says: "Those boys who started were courageous. They've done dance a big favour. After initial fears, they've revealed it to be a masculine activity. They look powerful and dynamic in performance. They don't get put down or jeered at."

Hartcliffe Boys Dance Company (01179 645155) performs at the Young Gloucestershire Festival on November 3; Clifton Cathedral, Bristol, March '97. Birmingham Royal Ballet Education Dept: 0121 6222555.

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