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Spark for flights of fancy

Pupils and teachers are experiencing the thrill of dance under the Ludus company's expert direction. By Norma Cohen.

Onstage at Wigan Park Teachers Centre, four dancers with enviable physiques wrestle like Olympian gymnasts, throwing their opponents across the floor before embracing as the music crashes around them. A mammoth, padded TV yawns out fluorescently, goggled at by a masked, couch-potato couple slumped in outsize armchairs, who communicate via remote-control yawns, scratches and snuffles.

The junior school audience is gripped in the power of "The Spark", Ludus Dance Company's sensationally popular dance performance challenging hyped media images of love spliced with the re-telling of an archetypal love story. The show tackles family and relationship issues thrown up by the Romeo and Juliet story: a collaboration between artistic director James Mackie, a dancetheatre composer; 60-year-old flamenco teacher Rosario Serrano; her guitarist and professional choreographers.

Activated by an electrical storm, two spoof Come Dancing contestants step through the screen, flouncing through a grotesque paso doble. Two bright-eyed innocents emerge from the oldies' stomachs: star-struck lovers who play out flamenco passion in a lyrical love duet.

The first company in Britain to invent dance in education 20 years ago, Ludus maintains a resource that young people in the North-west expect. "Creating an accessible show with a strong narrative, special effects and familiar theatrical forms hooks first-time audiences, 'buying' input for more abstract choreography. We have to go back to basics each year to draw in new generations," says Mackie.

Using the show as stimulus for dance activity in schools, Ludus tours the North-west and nationally with a grass-roots, outreach team from a resource centre at its home base, an l8th-century ballroom in Lancaster. An educational support programme aimed at teachers working at key stages 2 and 3 provides in-service training workshops, theme-based taster sessions and in-depth residencies.

Past shows have dealt with war, food, the environment, wind, communication and revitalising history. "Wild Child" will look at legends of children reared by wild animals. "Our aim is not just to workshop dance, but to deal in themes useful to schools in a cross-curricular way, in an open-access approach, " says Mackie.

Ludus has tackled Local Management of Schools and education authorityGovernment cuts by providing free workshops to local schools which pay a subsidised rate for the show, bussing pupils to a central venue. Nationally, schools buy in the package via local funding, City Challenge money or fundraising.

An imaginative dance interest in a school can get a term's work from Ludus' visit, relevant to dance teachers, PE teachers and classwork in English, media education, technology, music and the visual arts," says teacher adviser for Wigan, Glenne-Marie Ross, who liaises with the company and schools, offering curriculum advice and follow-up classes. A recent gala comprised pupils' and teachers' dance pieces preceding a Ludus performance.

At St John's junior school, Hindley Green, in Wigan, dancers Ruth Spencer (a former ballet dancer and now Ludus' dance touring officer) and Danny Thompson (ex-boxer) recreate the excitement of "The Spark" for 30 year 6 pupils. Some have seen the show twice and are relishing the prospect of acting "big 'n 'ard" in opposing CapuletMontague gangs.

"Imagine someone has shoved two, great jaffa oranges under your armpits, " says Ruth. Immediately, they're engrossed, expanding biceps and metamorphosing into mean-faced thugs while sitting on the floor. "The dance happens before they recognise they're doing it," says Mackie.

Danny and Ruth give an impromptu performance: rolling acrobats lowering themselves to the floor with muscle-bound arms.

The floor is streaked with roller-coaster whirls. Ruth and Danny demonstrate the power of the unexpected in slow motion and surprise, whiplash gestures. Crouched low, novice gang members respond with "Superman laser eyes" as the soundtrack blares ambulance sirens and kettle drums.

Pupils balance partners on knees, back and shoulders. They leapfrog and cartwheel, prowl and scoot, performing for each other to the appreciative applause of classmates, teacher and head. Imperceptibly, they've developed skills of agility, co-ordination, spatial awareness and rhythmic discipline.

Workshops are accompanied by a music cassette and teachers' resource pack offering model workshop examples, lesson plans, dance stimuli and choreographic starting points. A 20-minute video adaptation of "The Spark" for classroom use won the Arts Council's Taped Award.

* Ludus can be contacted at: Assembly Rooms, King Street, Lancaster LA1 1RE.

Tel: 01524 35936.

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