A new touring show designed for the under-sevens draws its inspiration from its target audience, reports Carolyn O'Grady
This spring Breathtaking, "a show of dance for children", is touring the UK, performing to an audience rarely given much attention by professional dance companies: three to seven-year-olds. Even more unusually, the dance is the result of a collaboration with children of that age. A haunting meditation on the themes of sleep, dreams and being scared in the night, Breathtaking will be performed by the company Bock and Vincenzi and is the fruit of a two-week residency with year 1 pupils at Leaf Lane Infant School in Winsford, Cheshire.
During this time choreographer Frank Bock and dancers Simon Vincenzi and Nanette Kincaid worked for an hour a day with the children: drawing, writing, talking, improvising and devising parts of the dance. From this the companycreated the dance itself. Leaf Lane School's intake is largely from a nearby large housing estate with more than its share of social problems. The project, says headteacher Sue Egersdorff, "was a way of showing staff that literacy and language skills, and even numeracy, can be taught through dance. It's about bringing back creativity into the curriculum generally".
Very important, she emphasises, is that children are involved in the creation of dance: "Too often teachers impose ideas. A teacher will say, for example, 'today you will be a flower'."
"Our pupils are particularly weak on the language side when they start. Through creating dance they can be encouraged to speak and listen and verbalise their thoughts, and to think through ideas, and out of that process come stories. For example, a child talking about dreams says: 'I was dancing on the moon'. So we ask the child 'How did you get to the moon? Was anyone else there?' 'What was it like on the moon?'" Dance also helped the children to work in harmony; to listen to others and to pick up signals about mood and feeling. And dance's concern with rhythm, shape and symmetry add another dimension to maths.
Sue Egersdorff's desire to encourage imaginative work is affirmed by the emphasis on creativity in the new PE curriculum - where dance now resides. Pupils should, it says, be taught to use movement imaginatively, responding to stimuli, including music, and performing basic skills; change the rhythm, speed, level and direction of their movements; create and perform dances using simple movement patterns, including those from different times and cultures; and express and communicate ideas and feelings.
Casting a spell
A technique for gathering attention and concentration as well as a dance idea in itself. Pupils think of what kind of spell they would like to cast. Ideas include "turning you to stone or into a fish". For the spell pupils create a small movement to express, for example, diving under water to turn someone into a goldfis, and accompany this with a turn and an arm gesture towards the one for whom the spell was intended, while making a "pwsh" sound. The other pupil responds as if under the spell. The spell can be reversed by reversing the movement. "Imagine winding the video backwards" helps children to understand.
Dreams Pupils discuss their most familiar dreams. They draw them and talk about their pictures. Some ideas are difficult to develop; the "being chased by a monster" type of dream, for example, tends to involve a lot of lumbering around. Others lead to very imaginative sequences, for example one child describing how her house "goes wobbly at night" may result in some lovely wobbling, sliding downwards and rebuilding movements. Frank Bock suggests working in small groups, talking to individuals. Children express their dreams using first just their fingers and then gradually the rest of the body, lying on their backs so they cannot see anyone else and copy each other.
The dreams are introduced by a "pillow dance": pupils lie on the floor and their imaginary pillow starts to float slowly upwards, taking their heads and bodies with it. As they move into an upright position they are able to move into their dreams. The section can conclude by returning to the pillow dance and being gently lowered back to earth.
Children yawn hugely, stretching upwards and sideways, then fall asleep. A good lesson in discipline: the children look forward to falling on the floor but have to hold back until they have completed the sequence.
Build up daily as a set dance in a circle. Children are alternatively trees or people. The "trees" start, with movements including shaking their hands and arms. Sometimes they are menacing, with the other children weaving through them, demonstrating fear, or echoing feelings of uncertainty and fear, by using angular, asymmetrical body shapes and quivering qualities.
Another section is almost a folk dance in style: tapping first the left and then the right foot, with bent-knee kicks to the side and arms lifted high. These are open symmetrical shapes which express a more confident feeling about being in the forest. Teachers can prepare these steps, or ask pupils for contributions to build up the dance.
'BREATHTAKING' ON TOUR
THE "Breathtaking" project was commissioned by the South Bank Centre in London, and is supported by, among others, Cheshire Dance Workshop, an agency which encourages dance activity; the Gulbenkian Foundation and The Arts Council. The show will tour the UK during May and June.
For further details contact: Nicky Childs, tel: 0207 247 5102. Fax: 0207 247 5103. Dance workshops will be organised in Cheshire by the Cheshire Dance Workshop, Winsford Library, High Street, Winsford CW7 2AS. Tel: 01606 861770.
The Workshop publishes teachers' resource packs on dance at both primary and secondary levels.