Tchaikovsky's ballet is given a modern twist with animation by pupils at a London primary. Rachel Besser gets a preview.A gold button is being added to the Nutcracker's burgundy uniform, a fairy is flying overhead and Russian soldiers are grooving on the dance floor. This flurry of activity is the result of a project that is introducing the arts to primary school pupils through animation and classical music.
Tom Cross, a freelance animator, has been guiding a class of Year 3 pupils at Camelot Primary School in Peckham, south-east London, through a series of workshops over the course of six weeks. The children interpret, draw and animate sections of Tchaikovsky's fairy-tale ballet, The Nutcracker Suite. Their work will eventually be projected as an animation in a performance by the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall, before an audience of 1,000 school children at a private event called Brightsparks, taking place next month.
"It is a different way of working on literacy," says Melinda Chaudhry, the class teacher. "The children understand, interpret and retell the story. At the end of the project, they will see the results of their hard work and it will boost their self-confidence."
The traditional story tells of Clara, a German girl whose jealous brother breaks her wooden nutcracker doll. The Nutcracker comes to life during the night to defend Clara from the attacking Mouse King, whom they defeat, and they then travel to the Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy.
The pupils are working on storyboards to sketch out their versions of the story. In one, Clara is an African princess with silver-hooped earrings and plaited hair.
Travelling to a castle, a big blue tower block, similar to one near the school, Clara and the Nutcracker are guided to the Land of Sweets by a fairy. Along the way, they pass Russian dancers, kitted out in baggy hip-hop pants, who perform the Dance of the Flutes.
"I give the children the tools to develop their own visual vocabulary to describe the narrative and emotions," says Tom. For example, they learn that a character slouching might be an indication of sadness, or that a hand on chin means the character is thinking.
Zion, a pupil, demonstrates this with his Nutcracker drawings: "Here he's angry when he sees the Russian soldiers, surprised that nothing has happened to him and then happy as they dance."
They learn that images that connect together quickly must have continuity - same colour clothes, a slightly moved hand. Plus, of course, people move, but their surroundings remain still. Tom demonstrates with drawings of Russian dancers in different poses, flicking them one over each other they are brought to life. "That's sick!" (Peckham-speak for cool) says Mussi, who is now inspired to finish her own series of dancing Clara images.
Tom scans the children's drawings into his laptop. Now Clara pops up on the interactive whiteboard waving a flower, smiling as she dances, with her red dress seeming to flow from side to side.
Some children prefer not to draw but to write their descriptions, which Tom then draws himself, so the end result will be a mix of work by pupils and animator, but all based on pupils' ideas.
The project is funded under Southwark Excellence in Cities, a government initiative aiming to provide innovative ways of raising educational standards in disadvantaged areas.