Norma Cohen on a project to introduce children to ballet.
Passport to Ballet is an ambitious two-year plan to introduce classical dance to eight to 12s. Launched at Ballroom Blitz, London's annual two-week dance festival at the South Bank, the project will feature workshops and lecture demonstrations for London and Hampshire schools in the first year and a new work, created specially for pupils, which they will perform in the second.
The project is being run by English National Ballet and funded by a Sainsbury's Arts for All Award. ENB are regular participants in Ballroom Blitz and on the day of the launch, Craig Randolph, the company's dance officer, led a grade ll ballet class. Expectant dancers lined up at freestanding barres crossing the Festival Hall's spacious ballroom floor, facing an attentive audience of teachers and parents. Seven year-old Daniel Mulligan, whose family runs an east London ballet school represented by an 11-strong contingent, has been dancing since he was three. For 14-year-old, Jamaican-born Sky McLachlan, this is the first affordable lesson she's found in three years. ENB's Education Unit will advise her on training and the professional career she deserves.
Former senior soloist Randolph demonstrates the daily warm-up featuring rondes de jambe (rounds of the leg): "The hardest thing you can do at the barre. Hand in front of your nose not the ear, supporting curved arms as if you're floating on water or air." Thirty pairs of legs slide in harmony, arms hovering into place. A born teacher, Randolph imparts a love of ballet while stretching minds and bodies. "A corrective element is important, so students can take away an experience where they've learnt something."
Deep in the South Bank's Hot House bowels, education officer Cheryl Harris runs a dance workshop for eight to 11s new to ballet. The pas de deux between Nutcracker Prince and Sugar Plum Fairy provides inspiration for classical notions of focus, symmetry and shape-making, "filling in the shapes" with turns (cleverly disguised pirouettes), and working on balances and lifts that turn bodies into spider and resting boat shapes. Two five-year-olds solemnly glue hands together, twisting beneath the "arch" in unity. Elsewhere, students watch a company class on stage. As the professionals spin and jump to top speed instructions from the ballet master, next generation's dancers gape in admiration.
During a mime workshop, Harris explains how romantic ballet's magical, sylph-like creatures wore soft costumes that became streamlined to facilitate classical ballet's ever higher leaps mirroring sporting and technological advance. Randolph retells the Giselle story of a jilted, broken-hearted peasant girl who ends up a wood spirit. Inspired by electronic keyboard, the group improvises with gestures evoking kings and queens, horned devils and - inevitably - death.
The morning's crowning glory is a free, interactive performance spectacular for the hordes thronging the ballroom floor: a "passport" introduction to the workings and story of ballet: its journey from the Italian to French court, to Petipa ("faster turns, bigger leaps") and the creative fervour of Diaghilev's Russia, via Balanchine to the USA with its athletic, uncluttered line of modern dance.
Dmitri Gruzdyev struts through a courtly dance in huge wig and stylish headdress. He returns in white leotard and elegant jacket to support his graveyard spirit Giselle, who floats on pointe into a flying arabesque, prompting a young boy to be similarly elevated in front of his friends. The audience is agog at Yat Sen Chang's flashy, leaping gopack and, in the finale pas de deux, at Monika Perego resplendent in tiara and silver pink costume.
Young devotees cluster round the hampers of theatrical wigs and costumes, trailing off in star-dusted tutus and scarey devil masks like gleeful guests at a fancy dress party. "The project's about making ballet relevant and accessible," says senior dance officer Ginny Brown, handing out cross-curricular activity "passport" books. Lavish resource packs geared to key stage 2 provide absorbing, comprehensive primers for all would be and practising dance enthusiasts.
Nureyev's Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Festival ends tomorrow. Tickets: 0171 928 8800.
English National Ballet's Education Unit, Markova House, 39 Jay Mews, London SW7 2ES (0171 581 1245).