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Tumbling into the world of art

Performance students use paintings as inspiration for their circus show, writes Jonathan Croall

In the middle of the central octagon of the Tate Gallery stands Bill Woodrow's arresting sculpture "God Knows". This striking bronze tower, topped by a cockerel and a giant pair of scissors, has become very familiar to students from nearby Pimlico School.

Together with four paintings from the gallery - by Sir Joshua Reynolds, Hans Hofmann, Mark Gertler and Fernand Leger - the sculpture has been a stimulus for a group of Year 12 BTEC performing arts students putting together Tension, a show which forms part of their First Diploma course.

Under the guidance of art historian Lucy Wilson, the students have looked closely at the five works - their texture, colour, space - and then worked on physical improvisations prompted by the way the different artists have created tension, used space or conveyed an emotion.

But the students have also been working during this three-week project with juggler Jane Ballamy and trapeze artist Lou Harwood, both members of Circus UK, who have taught them skills such as juggling, balancing, tumbling and plate spinning.

"Most of the students have never been inside an art gallery before," says Rory Simpson, Pimlico's head of drama. "We wanted them to make connections between the arts, and at the same time be exposed to people in the arts industry. "

With three days to go before the performance, the circus and visual arts components of the project are being glued together, with the students doing a first run-through in the hall under the watchful eye of Lou Harwood.

The group has constructed a series of short scenes or "images" using mime, dialogue, dance, music and movement. Rolls, cartwheels and lifts are being woven into the action. Much of it is physically challenging. One boy opts out of doing a cartwheel using a chair. "I need to practise that a bit more, " he says.

He gets it right on the night in front of an audience of fellow-students and an assessor. The group has welded the diverse elements together and come up with an enigmatic but visually absorbing performance, played against a background of their drawings and paintings inspired by the works at the Tate.

"They've learnt a lot about performance discipline and working as a team on a very tight schedule," Rory Simpson says afterwards. "It's also been tremendous for them to have an opportunity to work with professionals in this way. "

Jane Ballamy believes children have a lot to gain from exposure to circus skills. "They're particularly good for those who don't shine academically. It gives them a big boost when they find they can do something really well. "

Circus UK, which started in 1981, also works with younger students at Pimlico. Although operating mainly in Westminster, which funds them, the team can adapt to other schools' needs. "It all depends on the openness of teachers to new ideas," says co-ordinator Liz Weston.

Details from Circus UK, co Alternative Arts, 47a Brushfield Street, Spitalfields, London El 6AA, Tel: 0171-375 O441.

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