Steps from a war zone

Elaine Williams

Chechnya conjures images of bombs and desolation. But it is also home to an astonishing group of young dancers who are showing British pupils that their troubled land is a place of beauty as well as violence. Elaine Williams reports

The girl silhouetted in the sports hall doorway is a will-o'-the-wisp. No more than eight years old, her tiny frame is mercurial in its fluidity as she dances a breathtaking arabesque in the streaming sunlight. But there is strength and assurance in this young body.

She turns to look at the sober adolescents lined up behind her, their faces grave with concentration as they try to follow her quicksilver movements.

She shakes her head gently and, breaking from her sequence, walks around the hall adjusting wrists and fingers at the end of tense, awkward arms.

She smiles encouragingly; there is no talk, for although they share a love of dance, this elfin child and her more senior devotees do not speak the same language.

This is Wyedean high school, an 11-18 comprehensive of just under 1,000 pupils in Chepstow, transformed for the day by the step and beat of Chechnya. This comfortable corner of Monmouthshire may seem a far cry from the war-ravaged Caucasus, but the tragic events that have beset Chechnya over the past decade have been followed closely by this community. In 1996, Jon James, a local builder, was taken hostage with his partner, Camilla Carr, while they were working with war-traumatised children in the capital, Grozny. Upon their release, 14 months later, the couple returned to Britain to raise awareness of, and funds for, the Centre for Peacemaking and Community Development (CPCD), the organisation they worked for in Chechnya.

And the pupils of Wyedean have responded enthusiastically.

Mr James and Ms Carr have held workshops on conflict resolution with sixth-formers, talked to the school about their ordeal and the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation, and taken part in the school's fund-raising marathon races. And Wyedean opened its doors when Daimohk, a troupe of child dancers that had emerged from the rubble of Grozny to dazzle Europe with its renditions of the country's traditional dances, undertook a UK tour last year. On its way from the Welsh National Eisteddfod to the Royal Opera House in London, the troupe stopped off in Chepstow, where these remarkable children got the chance to let off steam, play with as many balls as they wanted in the gym and relax on the tennis courts - things they could only dream of back in Grozny. It also gave them a chance to meet other children. In return, Daimohk performed a few pieces from its repertoire, stunning a small audience of Wyedean pupils and parents with a show of explosive, passionate dance.

During its second tour this year, Daimohk (the name means "ancestral land") took workshops with Wyedean pupils, and an evening performance was a sell-out, standing-room-only occasion. The word went out that the school was host to extraordinary guests, and the workshops, held in the sports hall, attracted large numbers of willing youngsters.

Over in one corner, a group of boys, keen footballers all of them, are being put through their paces by one of the older male dancers. Through a series of elegant movements he shows them how to make energetic patterns, beats and rhythms with their feet, and how to arch their backs in strong upward leaps. Chechen musicians relaxing on benches suddenly start up a casual but irresistible drum beat and the English boys stamp their newly learned steps across the hall. They are prepared to put cool to one side and have a go at these intricate dance sequences, their awkward but touching efforts rewarded with nods, smiles and clapping from the Daimohk troupe.

Dom White, 14, admits the physical demands of the dances are "challenging".

Grace Jenkins, 13, admires the light, quick grace of the steps, "so different to pop music", and wishes the Chechens could stay longer.

The pupils are in awe of what the Daimohk dancers have achieved in extraordinary circumstances. Grozny remains a city under fire. The children have lost homes and family in bombings and shootings; they have lost their dance school. Only last May, some were injured and all were deeply traumatised when Chechnya's Moscow-backed leader, Akhmad Kadyrov, was killed with six others by a bomb that exploded in the stadium where Daimohk was about to perform.

Before the workshops begin, Camilla Carr introduces a documentary about the troupe. She gives a brief history of Russia's long-standing hostilities with Chechnya and the story of her own capture. Her voice is quiet and gentle, but the pupils sit in silence, stilled by the story of her captivity and of the traumatised children she went to help; by footage of the dancers rehearsing their exacting routines literally amidst the rubble of the city; stilled by a father's voice talking about how the dancing "made a man" of his son, how the boy is no longer afraid of the bombs, "even if they fall right next to him".

Walking the corridors of Wyedean, watchful of his dancers, of their games of tennis, their spirited basketball, their workshops, is Ramzan Akhmadov, Daimohk's founder and director. Wherever he goes, his dancers follow, wrapping their arms around him, chatting, asking questions. He explains that although the children love to tour and are relieved to escape the second Chechen war, now in its sixth year, they have left families behind and many are homesick. Performing at the Eisteddfod means they are also tired.

Mr Akhmadov appreciates the hospitality, support and fundraising efforts of his hosts, but his real mission in bringing the troupe to Britain is to show that Chechnya is not just a land of violence, but a country of rich culture and beauty.

Mr Akhmadov is a former star of the Chechen national ballet and a celebrated artist in Russia. After the first Chechen war of 1994-96, he, with his wife Aiza, herself a dancer and choreographer, saw dance as a way of giving Grozny's children a positive creative focus and a means of self-expression. When he advertised his planned troupe, 200 children turned up for an audition. They seemed so desperate that he hadn't the heart to turn any of them away and gave all an opportunity to reach the standard of dance required. Daimohk is now made up of 33 eight to 18-year-old dancers and four adult musicians. Since the destruction of their hall, the dancers, who all live in the same area of Grozny so they can get to rehearsals, practise in a school gym to the beat of handclapping.

The sheer exuberance of Daimohk has energised Wyedean, which hopes the troupe returns next year. Headteacher John Claydon believes the connection between this peaceful neighbourhood on the edge of the Forest of Dean and the Chechen company, as well as the ongoing partnership with CPCD, is a priceless exercise in understanding and reaching out to other cultures. It has become a central tool, he says, in opening the eyes of his pupils in this largely white, high-achieving secondary to the beauty and the suffering of the wider world.

But the experience does not come cheap. It cost CPCD pound;25,000 to put on this year's trip and a similar amount to hire a tour bus. The organisation is currently trying to raise pound;50,000 to build Daimohk a new hall. Chris Hunter, CPCD's general director, says creative activity is crucial to the healing process for traumatised children. For this reason, CPCD also runs a psycho-social programme in Chechnya that includes art and drama as well as dance.

As part of its UK tour, Daimohk has performed and held workshops at Budehaven school, in Bude, Cornwall, where CPCD is based. John Davies, head of drama, says the school and the town, like Wyedean, have taken the dancers to their hearts. "My abiding memory is of some rather aggressive, disaffected Year 9 boys being led in a workshop by this little girl of 10 who was getting them to do things teachers here would never dream of asking them to do," he says. "She had them in the palm of her hand. We were all blown away by the dancers' courage and technical proficiency."

For further information on CPCD or the Daimohk dance ensemble:

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Elaine Williams

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