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A secret to be shared

Norma Cohen sees primary children meet composer Harrison Birtwistle and learn music and dance from the professionals. Close your eyes and listen to the song. It is called The Song of the Birds and was sung by people from Spain who wanted to be free of an unkind king.

We are inside Queen Elizabeth Hall's crowded foyer, where one hundred pairs of fingers criss-cross over faces as London Sinfonietta composer and education projects co-ordinator, Fraser Trainer, introduces the first stage of a two month music and dance project called Secret Theatres. Huddling under a double bass and grand piano, the audience of seven- to 11-year-olds from south west London schools applaud enthusiastically.

Secret Theatres was a collaboration involving 180 children from Merton schools organised by the London Sinfonietta's education department and the Richard Alston Dance Company. It complements both companies' recent collaboration in the Harrison Birtwistle South Bank Retrospective Festival. The project takes the composer's use of contrast as its starting point: "Different ideas created in different times and spaces are allowed to collide and bounce off each other," said the brochure The mood turns to lively, upbeat Bach. Performance coachcellist Matthew Barley warms up with slow neck rolls and elastic face isolation exercises. "Watch my mouth. Get ready and slap!" Squeals of excitement go up for this dynamic version of Simon Says - all chest thumping and loud clicks - "make any sound you want!"

In another corner there is the ripple of percussion. Whirling with arms high, hands over face, young dancers jump like Petrouchka dolls, grabbing the air.

Matthew Barley introduces the "snippets of dance" hidden within Birtwhistle's enigmatic Secret Theatres and initiates an orchestrated hum, conducting cha cha clapping in a final rehearsal.

The teddy bear figure of Sir Harrison Birtwistle shambles on. Children crouch against his knees, peer up his nostrils. "How long does it take to write a piece of music?" "Three days or three years." "Why is it called Secret Theatres?" "If I told you, it wouldn't be a secret," comes the reply. "Close your eyes. No fidgeting. You're not going to cough!" he commands. "Now listen to nothing. Count all the things you can hear." And in the roaring silence, he slides away as mysteriously as he turned up.

A month later at Sacred Heart RC Primary School, New Malden, a junior class enjoys its second developmental session, swapping groups to effect the doubling of the fragments of dance and music composed last time, to be spliced together and polished during next week's final visit.

"Everyone benefits," says class teacher Clare Parker. "For the children, it's an opportunity to work with professional musicians and dancers, while activities manageable for non-professionals are good for my own development: warm-up skills, composition ideas, the focus on modern composers, simple movementpercussion structures, no set outcomes: all contribute in any way they can. It's an opportunity to develop ideas imaginatively and do things they wouldn't normally do."

The ratio of professionals (including two composers, a percussionist and two dancers) to 23 children is exceptional. Matthew, one of them, argues: "A lot of work in primary schools focuses on texture, avoiding rhythm completely. This project tackling complicated rhythms needs working musicians in small groups, otherwise it would be unmanageable."

London Sinfonietta: 0171 378 8123 Richard Alston Dance Company: 0171 388 8956

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