Conjurers' wonders

10th May 1996 at 01:00
Squeals of excitement rang round the ornate Grand Theatre, Leeds as the overture struck up for a schools' matinee of English National Ballet's dazzling Alice in Wonderland.

Choreographed by artistic director Derek Deane, with a sumptuous score (Tchaikovsky arranged by Carl Davis), it's a triumph of invention and magical effects.

Illusionist Paul Kieve conjures up surprises from the moment Alice falls through a rabbit hole into a revolving series of red doors: non-human sentinels guarding a smoke-swirled, giant eye. Designer Sue Blane conjures costume designs echoing Tenniel's original cartoon illustrations with idiosyncracies of her own. Gasps greet a ripple of masked creatures (animals of the Caucus Race) waving in a blue-green sea.

"There's tremendous excitement at schools' matinees when the audience has had a practical dance workshop and children are anticipating the section they've experienced in their own bodies," says education manager Joanne Duff, who initiated schools workshops in Southampton and St Helens junior schools.

London Alice workshops included a residency at Hampden Gurney Church of England junior school, Westminster, in Sainsbury's Passport to Ballet scheme introducing ballet to 8 to 12s.

There ENB dance officer Cheryl Harris led an alert class of 10s and 11s into a brisk warm-up: "Make your shapes as straight as the window frames around this hall." She's backed by Gary Hammond's percussion: vibe bars, kalimba thumb piano, Turkish tin drum, obsolete Persil can and old film reel.

"Remember," she says, "plie means?" "To bend" shouts back Aman. "And tendu?" "To stretch!" Imperceptibly, pupils are learning choreographic principles of verticality and focus used by Deane.

Her rapid instructions sweep the children into a corridor of straight-backed cards to attack Alice. "Think internally so's not to pick up your partner's movements." The children point, bend and swing in remarkable synchronisation. Next week, they'll watch their movements danced by professionals on ENB's rehearsal video.

Norma Cohen The ENB will be presenting Swan Lake at the Royal Festival Hall for two weeks from June 10. Alice will return for a tour in the autumn. Information: 0171 581 1245.

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