A toe into times past

13th June 1997 at 01:00
Something else they used to say, in Victorian times, children were ..." "Seen and not heard!" chortle 30 children without a moment's hesitation. Suzanne Whitworth, of Northern Ballet Theatre, opens a "day of dance" at St Lawrence's C of E Primary School, York.

NBT's education staff have been running days of dance over three weeks in York primaries, offering dance sessions in whatever form teachers have asked for. The nine to 10-year-old s at St Lawrence's have been learning about the Victorians, as is startlingly apparent when they are asked to put character and personality into their dancing.

As the pianist plays an extract from A Simple Man, NBT's ballet on the life of L S Lowry, a huddled crowd of children wandering through a factory gate suddenly become a throng of workers. When Suzanne asks for shuffling feet and hunched shoulders, and then suggests withering cold, the effect is even better.

"I had hurt my foot, a huge piece of coal had fallen on it," explains Amy Stephenson. "Michael helped me. He tried to bandage it with some rags."

"We were sisters," says Pascale Cuthbertson. "I was a bit bent over. I was ill and Maygen was trying to look after me and I kept falling over."

Why? "Because my boss had punched me! They did that sort of thing."

Suzanne Whitworth asks the children to walk as if they are wearing corsets or waistcoats, then to go up to a partner and wave a greeting. Clothes, as she reminds them, make a big difference to how we walk or move.

Then it's a change to walking "as if you have lost everything, as if you have nothing". Children choose a partner to make up a movement sequence to show the work their characters have to do. The result is a landscape of busy figures, beating carpets, twisting wet clothes, sweeping floors and endlessly "feeding" machinery.

Amy Stephenson and Michael Taylor take their inspiration from an illustration they saw in a lesson the day before. "Amy was holding some flowers and I was holding her cap out to get the money. She had a board on her hand with lots of flowers on and she kept holding them up for people to see," says Michael.

"When I was walking like a rich person, I pretended to be Queen Victoria, " explains Amy. "I was waving at people and trying to imagine them waving at me. When I was poor I had my head down because I was so sad. I was looking at the floor for scraps of food and old pieces of rag to wear."

Some of the children's movements have been influenced by a recent visit to York's Castle Museum where they sat in on a Victorian school lesson. During the afternoon, the attention turns to high society, working up to an enactment of a posh afternoon tea party for four toffs. The emphasis is on formal greetings, elegant movements and the need not to crowd together.

"Remember it's a dance, not a mime action," says Suzanne. "There's a point where you can do the same actions again, and repeat the same movements - and remember, it's posh, so no guzzling of tea if you please!"

To understand the idea of a dance, the children have to get away from the feeling of a "one-off" improvisation. This music comes from the Whitby Tea Dance scene in Northern Ballet's Dracula, all grace and delicate movement.

Before and after the culminating performance before the rest of the school, Suzanne and the children go through warm-up movements. Aren't any of the children tired? Tiredness is far from their mind, despite almost two hours work in the morning and slightly longer in the afternoon. They have all enjoyed being the people in their history books.

Details of Northern Ballet Theatre's education work from Janette Williams at Northern Ballet Theatre, West Park Centre, Spen Lane, Leeds LS16 5BE. Tel: 0113 274 5355. Fax: 0113 274 5381

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