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Animated Edition - Winter 2007
Ballet Hoo! What happened beyond the TV screen?
Ginnie Wollaston, was Acting Director of Education at Birmingham Royal Ballet throughout the gestation and delivery of Ballet Hoo! Here she reflects on the impacts felt by everyone who took part
For all of us involved and for those of you who watched all four documentaries of the Channel 4 series How Ballet changed my life: Ballet Hoo! the burning question has continued to be asked - what is next for the young people involved and how are they progressing after Ballet Hoo!

We started Phase One in May 2006 with 200 young people and 120 life coaches completed Phase Two in September 2006 with 62 young people and 15 life coaches on the final Hippodrome stage. The young people constituted a broad mix of cultural, racial and social backgrounds drawn from the rich diversity of populations in Birmingham and the Black Country. We knew from the recruitment interviews of issues of neglect, physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Some had problems with drink or drugs as a means of dealing with their emotional scars, while some had learning disabilities, dyslexia, autism, poor literacy and behavioural issues such as anger management.

The project aimed to combine the worlds of ballet and disadvantaged youth but the reality was a broader mix of partners and young people, learning to work and dance together over 18 months: four local authorities (Birmingham, Dudley, Sandwell, Wolverhampton), Black Country Connexions, Project Director Keith Horsfall, Artistic Director Desmond Kelly, ballet Mistress Marion Tait and Birmingham Royal Ballet's (BRB) education and communications departments, plus production company Diverse Production and a team from Youth at Risk.

The journey embraced many twists and turns, jumps and falls, spins and headstands, allowing young people and adults to choose their entrances and exits as a major part of the dance and personal development journey. We didn't believe or accept the word can't, nor in drop out or failure, the descriptions that many had already encountered and rejected.

In enrolling for Phase Two it was made clear that the bar had to be raised for the young people and adults alike if the ballet was to be learnt, staged and performed in less than six months. Desmond was clear from that he wanted the Ballet Hoo! company to work along the lines of the BRB professional company. A new company folder identified the expectations of attendance at rehearsals and at two five-day intensives, and that everyone would have a part - however small or large. Most were taking their GCSEs in June and July, so the decision to participate had to be made from an informed position from both young person, family and life coach.

There were times when we thought we had bitten off more than we could chew, but we believed in our vision, encouraged the young people and watched their development, then were bold in setting the steps along the pathway that led us to our goal. As Desmond said 'We wanted to introduce these people to something different, another facet beyond their worlds with their immense daily problems. We wanted to develop them as people - and I think we've already been successful in that regard'. Achievements went beyond any of our expectations and here are some of the stories that have continued after that memorable night in the theatre.

Christina, aged 19, who played the nurse in Romeo & Juliet, is now at an independent boarding school, given a two-year bursary by the Head to study a BTEC in Sports & Physical Education for two years. The Head saw the performance and was so impressed that he made the offer of the bursary. Christina had not been to school regularly since being 11 years old and had recently dropped out of college before joining the project. For Christina, this is the chance of a lifetime continuing to come true as she clearly recognises and keeps telling Marion and Jane (ex BRB dancer), who are new friends and role models in her life.

Many others have either returned to their studies at local colleges or taken up BTEC Performing Arts or Drama/Dance A levels. Linden, who played Tybalt, is currently studying four A levels including Drama at a local college and is considering taking Performing Arts at University or college in the future. He regularly returns to watch BRB perform, is a new member of the National Youth Theatre Company and together with a fellow participant Andy was recognised by people on a local bus. They sent a text to their youth co-ordinator Ali saying 'does that mean we're famous?!' Andy (who played Friar Lawrence) has completed his Silver Award for Youth Work, is enrolled on a peer mentoring course and is undertaking youth work qualification.

Leroy (a Capulet fighter and dancer) is also enrolled in a Performing Arts BTEC course and is the first member of his family to enter further education despite problems with dyslexia. His confidence has grown as a performer and as a person and he regularly performs with the youth dance company based at DanceXchange.

Shireenah (Lady Capulet), David (Lord Capulet) and Anton (Montague dancer) have all returned to their studies of GCSE's and BTEC with renewed determination to succeed in their dreams of taking up careers in the performing arts. Gemma P, who came to the project with drink and behaviour issues whilst being in care, is now taking a BTEC Performing Arts course and took the lead in a recent performance project. She is also managing her drinking habits whilst continuing her studies. Nicole, who despite losing all her friends along the way, stuck at the project and has now taken up a BTEC qualification in childcare at a local college. Her witnessing of this project can only be beneficial to her future career in caring for others.

Of the eight young people who participated in this project who were in full-time care, all but two completed the project. Statistics suggest that, generally, young people in care under achieve and have low aspirations. Gemma (who created and designed three Harlot costumes for the Ballet Hoo! production) is one of the one percent of young people in care who is aspiring to attend University, where she wants to study theatre design. She attended throughout the 18 months not as a performer but as an apprentice for technical training as well as costume design. Her confidence in her ability as a designer and stage manager grew over the 18 months and she is now ready to leave the local area and attend University next year.

Eshe, who left the project at the beginning of Phase Two 'slamming the door on opportunities as she had done so often before' (quoted in TV programme) came back over the summer of 2006 and worked with her youth co-ordinator Michelle to complete and gain a BTEC qualification. On the strength of this qualification she was taken onto a local college offering BTEC Performing Arts Course, which she still attends, while living alone in Birmingham aged 16.

Other young people have gained new employment using the personal development of skills learnt over the 18 months in terms of self confidence, self-esteem and raising aspirations to achieve. Alex, one of the breakdancers, who has recently gained his BTEC qualification from the project, has gained full time employment and is continuing to work and perform with the other four break-dancers. They will perform their own choreographed dance based on anti-smoking (as two of them have given up for three months) and will perform it in a local dance festival.

Sean, who gave such a moving account of his efforts to understand his and other's violent behavior in the last programme, managed to complete his seasonal work with the circus and is now looking for new employment. Alex H (another fighting Capulet and dancer) has completed three years at Glasshouse College with skills in glassblowing and music, and has been on a three week residential with the Prince's Trust. While on the project he learnt to control his anger and passionate nature, be accepted with his autism by other young people and learn to fight and dance within a duet. This is a great social and personal achievement for him.

Each young person was asked to identify three life goals at the beginning of the project, including one health goal, and to undertake additional qualifications if appropriate. To date 48 young people will be completing a BTEC qualification specially designed and written to accredit the informal learning from the personal development together with the dance skills and experiential learning gained from the project. Sandwell College agreed to accredit and award the BTEC qualification which is the first time the college has agreed to accredit a course written by an outside agency. For some young people getting this award has made the difference between getting in to or being rejected by a college or school.

For others, the educational input into healthy living - workshops, fitness sessions and a four-week intensive programme hosted by Aston Villa Football Academy - has been the first time they have applied themselves to living a healthier life style. Six managed to give up smoking completely; three radically curtailed their binge drinking; most appreciated taking more regular exercise and became fitter and some began to eat a healthier diet. For many the release of sharing emotional burdens, problems and situations with a group of supportive adults has meant being able to face hugely complex situations at home or within family groups.

As for those involved in leading or running the project, the learning that has taken place is multi-faceted and in some cases profound. From individual youth co-ordinators the feedback identified a different approach to youth work, which emphasised adults 'being' in relationships with young people and being willing to challenge behaviour without judging. It demanded an honest 'commitment to the word and taking responsibility for any action that arises' and for one it meant a much more intense evaluation of her role as a parent. For all, it meant a greater insight into personal values in relation to self and others and many commented on being a 'better and more aware' person at the end of the project. For others, it was a new experience to work with the arts and to discover that dance in particular can affect the individual as powerfully as it has done.

For the company of BRB the project has had a powerful impact in the world of dance (in particular the world of ballet) but more importantly within education and government. There has been positive feedback from different quarters of those involved with social inclusion, youth education and justice. While the claim has often been held that arts can change lives and the field of community dance attests to that, there is often a lack of evidence to prove it or to see it. The independent evaluation and report of this project, completed by Sue Harrison (Chair of the Foundation for Community Dance), and the lessons learnt, will be published in December 2006.

The impact has also been felt within the BRB company: dancers involved in education work and those involved in the performance work, and staff from many different other departments within the company: communications, technical, artistic and the Jerwood Centre for the prevention of injury. Feedback from the six dancers in the education team has been on how they developed as teachers and coaches, what they learnt from the young people and how they adjusted their own perceptions of young people. For most, teaching on such a long term project was new, so they found it very fulfilling to see their efforts rewarded in the quality of the final performance. For other dancers they loved the relationship that they created with individual young people, sharing their ups and downs; being only five years older, and many still retain text communication. For others they learnt to check their own approaches to the young people, their own judgements and preconceptions. Most dancers were unaware of the personal stories of the young people until the TV programmes came out, which meant that each young person was treated with the same demands for artistic and emotional behaviour. Some dancers were humbled and moved by what each young person had been able to overcome and began more fully to understand their own personal journeys in a different way. For most ballet dancers the focus of the individual is towards external appearance: mastering the rigours of body and mind to perform within the gruelling demands of a tight performance schedule. This project forced all of us at BRB to reflect upon and witness, in a hands-on way, what ballet and dance can and does offer young people, with amazing results.

Marion felt that treating the young people in a straight and honest way was key to the respect that she and Desmond gained, and was thrilled to see that even those with little or no aptitude for ballet or dance found an appropriate role within the ballet and could take pride in their costume and part. Both feel that the crowd scenes in the Ballet Hoo! version of Romeo & Juliet better portrayed the market scene of Verona than the BRB version. Critic Debra Craine, said in The Times on 2.10.06 'the ensemble scenes are the most riveting...where pride and anger are ready to boil over and have rarely felt so real'. Finally the artistic merit of reinvigorating such a well loved ballet has proved worthwhile. So who could want for more... except that there are more young people out there, like those in Ballet Hoo!...

Many involved in the project are setting up the Leaps & Bounds Independent Trust to deliver high quality arts experiences with intense personal development for future cohorts of young people across the West Midlands, which will be operational by April 2007. Young people from the first cohort are already signing up to be peer mentors to the new intake, and Lady MacMillan has agreed to be one of the patrons of the trust. So a future legacy is being built.

For further information visit www.brb.org.uk and www.leapsandboundsweb.com

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Animated: Winter 2007