Safahr so good

17th September 2004 at 01:00
Six schools, pupils of all ages, and a show untouched by adult authorship . Gerald Haigh reports from Birmingham

Put children and teachers of six Birmingham schools in partnership with directors from the Birmingham Royal Ballet and exciting things are bound to follow. Safahr Telling Tales of a Journey, a magical, many-layered story of an epic journey with a joyful ending, was presented to enthusiastic Birmingham Hippodrome audiences at two performances.

The culmination of 14 months of development and rehearsal, it involved four to 19-year-olds in creating and presenting a story that was entirely theirs. The pledge of that ownership - that all was from the combined imaginations of the children - was solemnly made by Dinos Aristidou, the artistic director, to pupils at the start of the venture, and again to the Hippodrome audience on the day.

"Nothing was put in by an adult," says Marian Davies, headteacher of Moor Green infants school whose children were involved. "Every idea, every development of the narrative, every set, every costume was the imagination of the children."

Teachers, and those who write stories and drama for children, know that the notion of the journey, with perils, threats, obstacles and triumphs, is never far beneath the surface of the childhood imagination. Give it rein, with guidance from sensitive professionals, and you end up with something as special as Safahr - meaning journey in Urdu - a stage filled with children and teenagers intensely focused on giving of their best.

The building of the story involved puppets, workshops, and the passing on from school to school of "story bags". Much work was done in schools - with many more children than could appear in the final event - and later in workshops and rehearsals in bigger spaces in Birmingham. The production - with a finale choreographed by Birmingham Royal Ballet's director David Bintley - was a triumph of artistic endeavour, organisation and co-operation, a showcase for the vibrant diversity of the city's young people.

The production generated its own stories and memories. Some recall the confidence of the teachers in their children, their understanding that however excited and chaotic things might be in rehearsal, children of all ages know how to rise to the occasion when things get serious. All the same, Marian Davies was reminded of the gap that can exist between adult and childhood assumptions when the cast assembled for rehearsal on a Hippodrome stage set for the Royal Ballet's Swan Lake. "A little girl, who'd been working for months on Safahr looked around and said: 'Are we doing Swan Lake then?' When she was assured that this wouldn't be the case, she said, 'Cos it's all right - I know the story'."

And Dr Maria Balshaw, creative director of Birmingham Creative Partnerships, tells of an encounter that says much of what the project was about. "Backstage, just before the start, one of the main actors, a secondary school boy with an early speaking part, was very nervous. A little girl from nursery took his hand and said, 'Don't worry, you're good.

Everything will be all right'."

As, of course, it was.

Schools involved: Anderton Park primary, Dame Ellen Pinsent special primary, Fox Hollies school and performing arts college, Lillian de Lissa nursery, Moor Green infants, Queensbridge secondary

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