Take a bicycle bell, two sets of wheels, a troupe of dedicated and athletic performers and an audience of under-fives. Result, says Victoria Neumark, an unforgettable experience.
Sunshine streams through the windows of a modern primary school. A man with a shaven head and a mobile, expressive face is demonstrating a bike bell to a group of fascinated children. At the centre of another group a tall, vivid woman is flexing her body as she too manipulates a bike bell. As each group of children files into the hall, shepherded by parents and teach- ers, the actors vanish, appearing later in the hall with their two bikes to a riveting soundtrack of salsa, Irish, soul and classical music. This is Axis, a physical theatre company which is about to hold 52 children and their carers spellbound for 45 minutes.
Like many successful dance pieces, Bike! has a simple plot. One of the actors gives the other a new bike bell, but its sound has somehow got lost. Of course, the piece has a happy ending, with the sound restored to the bell and harmony restored to the actors. Along the way, there is much in the piece to delight its target audience - the comedy of miming an alarm clock going off, the audience participation of hunting for an elusive sound, the mock sorrow of an argument - and the excitement of hearing one of the actors speaking Spanish (she is Colombian). For the nursery children of Pudsey Bolton Royd primary school, situated on the fringes of Leeds and Bradford with a large Asian population in the catchment area, this language - which conveys so much through gesture, tone and inflection - speaks directly to them. As headteacher Tony Mallard remarks, "It mirrors our language experience here."
For the couple of children who are hearing-impaired, the eloquent physicality of the speakers is equally involving. "Did you see the actor's face when she was angry?" asks Tony Mallard. "It was incredible, so intense." So much are the deaf children caught up in the action that one of them keeps pointing excitedly to the source of the lost sound.
Niladri, founder and director of Axis, used to work in a special school for deaf children in Bradford and so is specially alive to the implications of language within physical theatre. Axis creates, he says, "work that is bilingual but makes no comment on it".
Funding, unfortunately, is precarious, with money being granted for each specific project and fees at a modest Pounds 100 a school performance (and reductions for more than one performance), making expansion difficult. Looking at the rapt faces and attentive bodies of the audience at Bolton Royd, it is hard to imagine a more worthwhile use of the money. As Valerie Petty, head of the nursery, says: "You'd never have thought they'd sit still for so long. "
Parents contributed Pounds 1 to the Axis performance, but were also invited to bring along family members and younger siblings. The staff believe that making the school part of a family network creates a more secure environment for the children, many of whom have learning difficulties or other special needs.
The arts are used as a focus to develop the individual within the school community, with all children having their own exhibition of work up on the walls for two weeks of the year, contributing pieces of work to the folder which accompanies them up the school, and being the centre of their own lively birthday party.
Axis also offers training courses for teachers. For information ring 0113 278 3307 or 240 7214. Their next production, taar, has a South Asian theme.
Looking at the rapt faces, it is hard to imagine a more worthwhile use of the money.