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Unleashing Creativity and Enjoying Yourself

Taking a look at Northern Ballet Theatre’s Learning & Access Programme

by David Mead

March 2006

Education and outreach is an important but often unseen aspect of a dance company’s work.  We all see the results of the hard work put in by the dancers and artistic staff but somewhere behind the scenes there’s usually a small group of people dedicated to taking dance to people in a different way, making it accessible through talks, workshops and a whole host of other activities.

These always used to be called ‘education’ or ‘outreach’ departments, but therein lay a problem.  ‘Education’ sounds very formal and is often automatically associated only with young people and schools. However, most dance company education teams don’t recognize age or location as any sort of barrier.  And of course, many people don’t have a particularly positive experience at school, which makes it even more difficult.  There are also problems with the term ‘outreach’ which can have marketing connotations. At Northern Ballet Theatre, a mid-sized company based in Leeds in the north of England, they opted for the term ‘Learning and Access’, feeling it better reflected not only what they carry to people outside the company but also what they do inside offering creative and learning opportunities to staff as well. 

Like most companies, Northern Ballet Theatre works with young people, teachers, community groups and the general public offering a range of opportunities.  Although schools, workshops, projects and residencies account for most of their work, the programme includes a wide range of other events including open and specially targeted workshops, master classes, teacher insets, community projects, and lecture-demonstrations and talks.  As I said, making it accessible is key, with everything designed to involve participants in company productions, give them a deeper understanding of narrative dance, and enhance the existing dance provision.

While the Company still holds events in all its tour venues, a recent change of focus has seen its education work concentrated in Nottingham, Norwich, Milton Keynes and around its home base (Leeds/Sheffield/Bradford), with strategic partnerships being established with local schools, colleges and theatres.  These cities were chosen for the simple reason that the Company visits them twice a year.  The Arts Council has allocated some funding specifically to help develop these partnerships.

Learning & Access’ work was previously more evenly spread around the country taking in all the Company’s performance venues. Caroline Burn, one of two Education Officers, explained that while this meant as many schools and groups as possible benefited, there was nothing developmental about the strategy.  The company was holding workshops in an incredibly large number of locations but often “that was it until we went back the following year.”

She has some sympathy for those missing out under the new strategy.  The company accepts that the ‘partnership route’ is not for everyone and that one-off events may better meet the requirements of some.  However, it has long been recognised that long-term partnerships are more beneficial for companies and participants.

Caroline went on to explain that her work in these cities is not only restricted to when the company is visiting but that she also spends around four weeks a year in each.  Projects vary enormously, often involving more than one school or group and often running for a long time.  For example, a project in Nottingham has involved a secondary school and six feeder schools and culminated in a performance at the city’s Theatre Royal in February 2006.  Although it has been a huge success, it also highlighted a problem working with schools can come up against -- the repertoire.  Caroline was disappointed that she had to cut down on the participants’ theatre trips since “Dracula”, performed on one visit, was not really suitable for primary school children.  “They were all keyed up and desperate to go to the theatre again and we felt we couldn’t risk taking them even though they were in Year 6,” she said.

To give some idea of the scope of her work, besides two weeks of workshops with the six primary schools and the secondary school residency, Caroline’s work in Nottingham alone includes much other work associated with show weeks including one-off workshops with other schools, teacher insets, and over-55, public and audience events.  As she says, “no two days are ever the same.”

Another multi-school project took place in Milton Keynes involving Stantonbury Campus, an arts college, other local secondary schools, and Milton Keynes Theatre.  Northern Ballet Theatre were particularly interested as both they and the theatre were looking to work more strategically to influence and more widely benefit  the arts in the city’s schools.  Funding was gained for a project to involve the company to work with the schools and give them the benefit of their experience, while Stantonbury, with its excellent facilities and experienced performing arts staff, provided other resources.  In a sense, the knowledge was cascading down to the other schools, some of which face many more challenges.

Many schools link Northern Ballet Theatre’s visits into other areas of the curriculum.  At Summerfield School in Milton Keynes, the children not only took part in “Dracula” workshops but also linked the theme into their art, history and geography lessons.  The workshops at the school which took place in a hall adorned with the students’ “Dracula” art works also showed how dance can have a real positive effect on students and help in other curriculum areas.  In a Year 5 workshop (10-year olds), volunteers were asked to read a short section from Bram Stoker’s novel.  One child, described by his teacher as having significant reading difficulties, put his hand up.  The teacher initially whispered “oh, no” but then, much to her surprise and delight, he read the paragraph almost perfectly.

Of course, you can never be quite sure what the attitude of students will be.  Much depends on the teachers and at Summerfield, the staff had clearly thrown themselves fully behind the day.  However, where schools have regular access to arts education and professional artists, such contact can sometimes be seen as the norm and stop being special.  Where contact is rare, any contact, even one-off events, becomes special and is usually treated as such by staff and students.  Everyone is much more eager and enthusiastic.

Other things can go wrong too.  Caroline told how she once arrived to give a parents and tots workshop only to lock her car keys inside the car along with her music and stereo.  She said there was nothing for it but to sing as an accompaniment which she thought was fine until she saw a three-year old with his hands over his ears!  Fortunately, these days there is usually a pianist with her.

Schools and young people are of course not the Northern Ballet Theatre Learning & Access team’s only target audience.  Whole family events are rarely held in Britain but it is an area they have been looking at.  For example, with Peter Pan, there was an open workshop for ‘pirates and lost boys’ which was very much a ‘father and son’ event.  Of course, like school events, those for families are very dependent on the repertoire being suitable.

Of course, this is not a problem when it comes to events for adults.  The Company has been having great success with workshops aimed at those over 55.  These began at the Theatre Royal in Norwich and were such a success that they are now being held in other venues.  The Norwich group call themselves the Limelighters and have occasional social get-togethers as well as meeting up for the Company’s visits.

Caroline, who clearly really enjoys running these sessions, explained that in many ways they are not that different from young people’s workshops in that they consist of a warm-up and creative work.  As with the young people, she explained that they start with stretching and loosening exercises such as plies, and teach a simplified version of the repertoire.  The participants then always have the opportunity to work with the repertoire creatively to make a final section.  The differences are really that everything is a little slower and more gentle. They don’t go down to the floor and the creative element is often extended to the warm up, for example, asking them to work in pairs to create or extend a port de bras.

She felt that the biggest differences are that the humour is different and that everyone is so much more keen and enthusiastic.  She felt that with adults she usually feels as if she is working with them whereas with young people she sometimes has to work to find ways of inspiring them to want to take ownership of what they’re doing and to enjoy it.  She added that adults only have to be given an inkling of an idea and they want to run with it- they always want more and to go faster.  There is a view among some that ballet is an activity only for the young and I remember once being told by a ballet teacher that “adults can’t do ballet” but she was so wrong.  Yes, it may have to be adapted but maybe not as much as you think and these workshops certainly prove it can be done and be great fun.

Speaking of breaking barriers, in early 2004 Northern Ballet Theatre ventured into new territory with its first complete audio-described performance at Sadler’s Wells, something which is now a regular feature of its program.  This essentially involved making headsets available through which an audience member can listen to a live commentary of what is happening on stage including set changes and emotions.  To back these up, the Learning & Access team holds workshops involving talks about productions and touch tours of the backstage and sets.  There’s sometimes even a practical element with the participants being guided through a simple barre and even doing some travelling and jumping in the centre holding their guide’s and each other’s arms for guidance and direction.  Other events have included a family day and even a two-day family residency in association with the Royal National Institute for the Blind.  After the great initial success of these events, the company is now delivering a research project, funded by British Energy, to determine the level of interest from the visually impaired.

Dance company education is of course not without its big issues and problems.  Resources and time are finite and decisions have to be made about where and who to focus on.  In workshops, flexibility is key.  Caroline explained that although schools are asked to give full details about their participants including dance experience, cross-curricular activities and learning difficulties, things can be misinterpreted.  It’s not unusual to have to alter plans even mid-workshop.  Being able to think on your feet is a definite plus!

It seems amazing that all this is done by just two education officers backed up by a number of freelance dance artists, used mainly in the Leeds area, and a small support staff at the company’s West Park headquarters.  One other member of the team who deserves special mention is pianist Richard Kenwood-Herriott.  The Company has a policy of using live music wherever possible in its workshops, and Richard, who has recently issued the first CD of his own music for ballet class, really is excellent.  He always seems to know instantly just the right piece of music to play giving just the stimulus or helping to project just the required mood.

The lack of dance in schools and the community as a whole continues to be a concern to many.  It’s a gap that Northern Ballet Theatre’s Learning & Access team and others are helping to fill.  While it can be argued they shouldn’t have to do so, you have to admit they are doing an excellent job.  Watching Caroline and Richard in action you can’t help but admire their commitment, enthusiasm and rapport with those they work with.  They certainly provide an important link between the professional ballet world, schools, and the wider community.  In addition they make it enjoyable and that is important because if it is fun people might just go for the theatre or come back for more.

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