Stretching challenge

11th November 1994 at 00:00
Timothy Ramsden on an international dance and storytelling festival. They're real people," said Andrew Chetty of the dozen teenagers at Koffi Koko's African dance workshop. So real, they weren't going to let a scheduled visit by various chairmen (Fred Riddel of Nottinghamshire Education Committee, Lord Gowrie from the Arts Council) interrupt their lunchtime.

After all, they had given up half-term week to work with the Benin born, Paris-based African dancer, whose associates include Peter Brook regular Yashi Oida. As Chetty pointed out, these were young people for whom the workshops were not Art, but a physical event. As they bent, stretched and stepped their ways from exercises to dance patterns the struggle towards success was also a journey of discovery. For Chetty (African Arts Producer at Nottingham Playhouse) saw the workshop as a chance for young people with African ancestry to experience their cultural traditions. One teenager put it differently, saying she was ashamed she had not known about what was, in a sense, her family dance form.

Accompanied by drums and berimbau (a kind of longbow with metal "string", resonator and stone striker) the group was able to learn, thanks to the International Workshop Festival which brings artists from around the world to Britain. This year artists in London, Londonderry and Glasgow will benefit from classes but only in Nottinghamshire, thanks to funding from the Education and Leisure Services Committees, is the fun and hard work opened up to schools and young people from youth clubs.

So physical storytelling group Salidummay have come from a mining area in the Philippines to the north Nottinghamshire coalfields, working in the the frost-nipped air and warm atmosphere of Bilsthorpe Infant and Nursery School. Over two days, a couple of classes of children still near the start of their education worked on follow-my-leader action songs, group dances and percussion rhythms from the Philippines before presenting their work to the clear delight of other classes. There was art and achievement measured in the intense concentration of one young face and the wide-smiling delight of others. This was followed by Salidummay's own song and movement story of the establishment of a rice-growing community. Their performance and excellent rapport with the young people opened enormous cross-cultural vistas The berimbau's fascinating rhythms resonated round Nottinghamshire too with the London School of Capoeira. Their workshops taught the steps of this dance-cum-martial arts form, originally a disguised form of escape preparation by Brazilian slaves. Kitty Parker of Nottingham Playhouse's Theatre-in-Education company Roundabout, which used its excellent school links to organise much of the workshop programme, brought Capoeira in as a dance likely to appeal to boys. Often it worked, though some of the county's more challenging young people found themselves too challenged by the demands. Their teachers, who know them best, insisted the session was valuable but to an outside observer there seemed a mismatch. Sitting on the sidelines is not what workshops are about.

Still, it showed that Nottinghamshire is determined to open up the arts to a cross-section of young people, not just an elite. And the partnership of a local authority resolute in providing arts education with a repertory theatre having wide-ranging community and educational commitments, provided a pattern that should be the envy and aim of arts educators nationwide.

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