Marshalling the art of dance

7th June 1996 at 01:00
You are a performer today and it's serious." Standing barefoot against a backdrop of glittering suns and fish, brilliantly dressed dance artist Sujata Banerjee addresses 100 Cambridge children from four local primary schools. On her right are a renowned tabla drummer and a sitar player from Calcutta.

This is the culminating performance of a project on Asian culture. It was initiated by Viv Ewington, the new education officer at the Cambridge Arts Theatre, who is keen to develop community dance while the theatre is closed for a Pounds 6 million refurbishment.

In three sessions schools have produced dance dramas conjuring up the rich folklore and intricate steps of south Asian dance. This pilot, which is funded by Cambridgeshire County Council, feeds into an on-going series of multi-cultural workshops and devised performances, including a dance video project for eight to 11-year-olds this summer.

In the run-up to the production, Sujata led warm-up sessions based on south Asian ceremonial martial arts, then worked on traditional, classical and folk steps. Neighbourhood arts worker Ali Dando, from the Cambridge Community Arts team, helped classes build Brahma's seven burning suns and 3-D structures from tissue paper and willow to echo movement shapes.

Pupils from Fawcett School arrrange themselves in a V-shape facing the audience. Linking in with their Tudors and Stuarts project, Sujata developed work on the discovery of the Spice Islands into an exploration of south-west India and the Far East.

She explains how a mountain journey would traditionally start with an invocation or offering to Mother Earth. A thump from the tabla as 35 pairs of arms open like suns on high in this symmetric greeting. Wild boars, rabbits and deer jump rhythmically on stage, ending up in a filmic tableau of reclining dancers draped in a classical picture.

For King Hedges's School's local river study, Sujata weaves in a Hindu creation story based on a journey through the holy Ganges: an ocean-full of sea-monsters which swells over causing a 12-year monsoon in a destruction and rebirth cycle, before Brahma restores mellow harmony.

Swimmers (including a boy with a football scarf tied round his head) scythe a path through the undergrowth. Saris billow out, are spun into a river, then a maypole, held high and rushed off. Hands trill like rain into a drumming, stamping finish.

Teacher Andy Bennett of Milton Road Primary confesses to lacking confidence with dance, but admires his class of eight and nine-year-olds "for its determination to carry through a technically-challenging project, stimulating an enjoyable dialogue in the classroom on musical beats and cues".

Their imagination stirred by a previous project with Sujata, his pupils took over rehearsals themselves, directing Mr Bennett in counting out the difficult rhythms and practicing in the playground.

Their journey through a dreamworld sees them sleepwalking over a bridge of humped backs, balancing on hands, rowing and swaying into concentric, clapping circles.

Spinney School focuses on Hinduism in RE. Sujata takes the story of Krishna and the Buttermilk in which he's benevolently represented as a naughty boy, traditionally developing the story through the mime and gesture of Indian women at work.

Jaunty lines of heel-toe-stepping dancers enter. A small boy clutching a purple ball, wearing a long sash bounces into a circle of village women washing clothes and whipping milk into buttermilk. In a daze of his own, teasing his mates in a football game, he spies the milk, clambering over backs, ever higher, to seize his trophy before being smirkingly dragged down.

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