Dance under the North star
In a colourful mixture of shorts and t-shirts, the Primary 67 class of Addiewell Primary in West Lothian is doing its best to look threatening. "Warriors can't look mean and fierce with their bottoms sticking out," says Lorna Pickford, Scottish Ballet's head of education, knocking her troops into shape.
At the top of the gym hall, Steve Thornton produces a surge of rhythmic music from sampler and keyboards, and the class swings into its war dance; elbows, knees and fingers jutting aggressively as the warriors-in-embryo leap across the floor.
This week they will see professional dancers performing "their" dance at Glasgow's Theatre Royal. "You'll recognise the warriors immediately," says Pickford. "They'll be wearing red and black costumes and masks, and they'll do exactly the same dance you've just done." If ever there was a way to make dance accessible to children, then this is it.
For the Addiewell pupils, this morning's two-hour creative dance workshop has been unforgettable. "Is this like any dancing you've done before?" I ask. "No. This was brilliant fun," says Callum Allan. "I thought it would be like frilly tutus," adds Michael Lewis, resplendent in a South Park t-shirt, "but it was brilliant." Few, if any, of the class have been to a ballet before, but this workshop filled them with enthusiastic confidence for the experience.
Creative dance workshops are part of all Scottish Ballet tours, but this is the first time the company has performed a show conceived specifically for a young audience. Prince Rama and the Demons is based on the Ramayana, an ancient Indian epic poem of 24,000 verses, ranking alongside the Mahabarata and the Iliad. In the hands of Robert North, Scottish Ballet's new artistic director, it has become an hour-long piece of dance-theatre with 15 dancers and a narrator. The music is performed live on stage on a selection of exotic percussion and wind instruments, and the action features brave princes battling against demons, a mischievous monkey with a neat line in pyrotechnics, and a storyline that reads like the Arabian Nights crossed with the Wizard of Oz.
"The full version of the Ramayana takes three days to perform," says North, who first saw the piece while on a British Council cultural exchange in Indonesia, "but you come across it in all sorts of shorter versions. You could see it done with shadow-puppets, real puppets, with singing, on television. You could go and see a different version every night."
North was struck not only by the great beauty of the Indonesian performances, which often took place in open-air theatres with backdrops of temples, trees and sunsets, but also by the familiarity of the oriental movement. "It was pure Martha Graham," he exclaims, leaping out of his seat and adopting a sloping-hipped, elbowy posture. The combination of eastern and western styles appeals to North, who is a breaker-down of barriers in dance. "The great thing about the Indonesian movement is that it is not too difficult. Obviously it's difficult to do it as perfectly as the classical Indonesian dancers, but the basic movements are quite easy, so you find the kids doing the steps as they go out of the theatre."
Dancing as an inclusive rather then a divisive activity is something North would like to bring back to our shores. "Most schools don't teach much dance, or singing, any more," says North, "and that' a great mistake. Most young kids have a tremendous ability to dance." He hopes Prince Rama with its male role models and comedy will help break down the macho suspicion of dance in this country. He intends to keep up the pressure, following Prince Rama with productions of The Snowman and The Cradle Will Rock, also aimed at young people.
Before coming to Scottish Ballet, North worked in Sweden and Italy, where theatre for young people is well established and where he has built up a good relationship with schools. "In Gothenburg we would do a preview for teachers, who would come along and buy tickets on the spot." Nervous that Scottish schools might not be so keen, North was delighted when a collaboration with Glasgow City Council education department was put together. More than 6,000 Glasgow schoolchildren from 86 primary, secondary and special schools will go to see Prince Rama at the Theatre Royal over the next week. The council has found pound;11,500 to put into the project and has basically guaranteed to fill every seat in the theatre for the five performances.
"We are very keen to promote the cross-cultural element of a Hindu story performed by a Western ballet company but in Eastern style," says Les McLean, Glasgow's racial equality officer, "and there is also a social inclusion agenda: very few Glasgow school kids will have seen a live ballet, especially in the Theatre Royal."
With a new artistic director, keen to develop audiences and break down "the fear of modern dance", Scottish Ballet looks ready to put young audiences and education centre stage. The merger with Scottish Opera is the only threatening cloud on the horizon. Lorna Pickford, whose two-strong education team has worked enthusiastically through difficult years, is delighted to be able to plan ahead under Robert North's direction, but is still waiting, two years on, for a third team member. That job was "frozen" when merging was proposed.
In the meantime, Pickford has found time between teaching workshops on tour with the company, to arrange longer-term workshops in three schools in and around Glasgow. Funding was pieced together from trusts. Since dance is part of 5-14, Lottery funding is not available to pay for outside expertise. Meanwhile many primary teachers are flummoxed at the mere thought of having to teach dance.
The eight and 16-week courses brought Pickford against opposition. "You have to overcome not only the children's preconceptions about dance, but the parents' as well," she says. She started by finding out what those preconceptions are, quizzing the children on what dance means to them, and their expectations of the workshops. "I started with movement games, without saying 'This is dance', and then later introduced creative elements." She found by playing on pupils' competitive streak (who can jump the highest), and by including street dance or hip-hop in the sessions, she could win them over. "By the end they were asking me to come back again, and quite a few were keen to start classes.
"There was one girl who was terribly shy and whenever I said 'Find a partner', she was always left out. But at the end of the workshops she came up to me and said 'I think I might go in for a talent contest and do the dance you've shown us with some extra bits of my own'." Pickford smiles. "That's why I'm doing this job. Not everybody is going to start dance classes, but it shows them they can dance, and enjoy it."
Prince Rama opened January 27 at Glasgow's Theatre Royal, then tours Woking, Edinburgh, Inverness and Aberdeen. Details from Scottish Ballet 0141 331 2931.