Fights of fancy
Scottish Ballet's revival of John Cranko's version of Romeo and Juliet - currently on tour throughout the UK - is more than a tragic love story. It is also a portrait of senseless violence.
The tale of two feuding families in 13th-century Verona ends with multiple fatalities, including the suicide of the two lovers. Act 1 sets the tone with a street brawl in which men cross swords and women viciously assault each other. But nobody is really hurt. They can't afford to be - the show must go on, night after night.
Fight director Denis Agnew is the man who choreographs the brawling. He wants the violence to seem real. "An act of violence is that point when the veneer of civilisation slips. It can happen any time. It must be instantaneous - and highly emotional," he says. But it must also be safe.
It is this principle - of maintaining the quality of the violence while ensuring safety - that underpins Agnew's work with Scottish Ballet's education unit. "Have a Fight" workshops are a popular option from the menu of activities the unit offers to schools alongside the main company's tour of Romeo and Juliet.
Young people who opt to have a fight often arrive believing they are in for a free for all, says Mr Agnew. But they are rapidly made to realise that stage fighting is about "choreographing every movement to a high degree". He also gets them to understand the reasons for the violence - it is not gratuitous, but a highly charged part of the plot. "I bring all that to the fore. Otherwise it all becomes just another crazy workshop."
First comes a series of warm-up exercises. This not only helps prevent injuries, it allows Mr Agnew to gauge the children's levels of co-ordination and spot "who're going to hurt themselves", if not carefully guided. Participants are then shown the delicacies of pushing, shoving, bashing and throwing. "I show them which area of the body to go for for most effect, how to reach out to the other person and how to defend themselves - to ride the blow, in other words."
Controlled bodily contact is the order of the day. No weapons are allowed - that's strictly for the experienced and for professionals, says Mr Agnew.
With basic training mastered, a sequence can be put together "blow by blow". In a single workshop, working up to one of five movements is quite an achievement. "Then we add the narrative, and we have a short scene." Another important ingredient is music. Mr Agnew works with skilful accompanists who follow the children's movement.
A freelance and one of an elite band of 32 fight directors in the UK, Mr Agnew has worked with major companies. In the early 1980s he started his long-standing connection with Scottish Ballet. Later he choreographed the fight scenes for Graham Lustig's Peter Pan, another major production on the company's repertoire.
In other workshops swashbuckling pirates, warring Indians, and a flying Tinkerbell and Peter Pan provide plenty of opportunities for Mr Agnew to apply his craft with the professionals and with young people in schools. He inspires pupils with his outline of the tale of the boy who doesn't grow up. "Captain Hook is fighting with Peter but then he sees the crocodile that bit off his hand and he's terrified. It's Jurassic Park stuff, and incredible imagery for children."
But always cautious, he emphasises that a full-blown fight is the last thing on the agenda. "We can't progress until the kids have the basic elements. "
Denis Agnew and Jacqueline McKay, head of education at Scottish Ballet, will hold a Primary 6 workshop on Romeo and Juliet at Gylemuir Primary School, Edinburgh, on May 22.
Scottish Ballet, tel: 0141 331 2931