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Animated Edition - Summer 2007
Critical faculties
A trip to Italy helps Donald Hutera recycle his lost youth
'Is that your daughter? a friend asked, glancing at the original colour version of the photograph accompanying this column. But no, it's sweet, shaggy-haired and gender-bendy moi in a school portrait (!) taken at the age of about thirteen. And yes, I'm sporting a shirt completely covered in miniature purple Marilyn Monroe heads. This was the early 1970s, after all, when such sartorial splendour was practically de rigueur even in the American Midwest.

It's interesting, or hilarious, to see yourself in earlier incarnations. I look so innocent! Those were the days. Or were they? Within a few years of this image being snapped I became a reclusive, film-obsessed high school drop out and undiagnosed male anorexic. If that was the worst of my adolescent problems I should consider myself lucky.

We didn't talk psychology in my family back then, much less think about recycling or anything as rarefied as dance. But I'd better explain this last, non sequitur-like reference.

Lately I've had good reason to be thinking about young people and dance, which also happens to be the focus of this issue of Animated. The recycling part is a bonus. In mid-May Lenka Flory and Simone Sandroni, of the Umbria-based company Deja Donne, invited me to Perugia to attend a small meeting marking the official conclusion of R.A.P. (Recycle Art Performances) for Children. Funded by the European Commission, this was an environmentally conscious artistic experiment involving six international partner organisations (including the UK's Dance Umbrella, working in tandem with the Learning, Access and Outreach department at The Place), 125 children and a total audience of 5000. Its centrepiece was performances of My Name Is King, a production arising from the collaboration between Deja Donne and venues or festivals, local authorities and schools and waste/recycling companies in Prague, London, Ludwigshafen, Stuttgart and Perugia.

Children in each city, mainly nine to eleven year-olds, participated in workshops prior to appearing onstage as both a sort of Greek chorus for the show's handful of adult actors and a mirror-image citizenry for us in the audience. They also visited garbage dumps and recycling centres, witnessing first-hand all that we discard and helping to construct a set from such refuse.

The R.A.P. project has been deemed a success, perhaps even more for what it implies about using artistic practice to stimulate creativity and effect social awareness than on its own merits. 'If the government wants us to think more about developing thinking skills in children,' say Bavaani Nanthabalan, head of Torriano Junior School in Camden, 'this is the way forward.' It was her school that provided the twenty children who appeared in My Name Is King at The Place last autumn.

'We're always focused on telling stories about human beings,' Simone explains Deja Donne's aesthetic, 'what their actions produce and the physical traces they leave behind. Rubbish and waste is very correlated with the social system and the selfishness, aggression and evil that has wounded our earth. I don't want to sound like a priest, but somebody has to treat the wound.' He also speaks perceptively about 'how little time children spend with adults,' adding, 'We didn't want to use them as a cute part of the show, or for them to be liked. They create a stronger, more marked contrast to the prevarications of adults.'

Flory, too, praises her youthful casts. 'They were always improving their concentration and ability to be onstage, and they really smelled and saw the rubbish. And we treated them as adults. Once we promised something we did it. We didn't try to cheat them. When you are honest with them, they pay you back with honesty. I think they accepted that they are part of something, not individuals alone on the earth.'

Just after returning from Perugia I read an article in The Independent about Chance to Dance, a Royal Ballet initiative whereby talented children selected from 46 primary schools in various London boroughs are offered weekly classes for up to five years. Paul Reeve, director of education at the Royal Opera House, naturally waxed enthusiastic about the programme. 'One of the great sea changes here is that education is no longer seen as an obligation that comes with getting a large chunk of public funding, but as something integral to what we are and what we do. It's now seen as something that benefits us, rather than just some social service we're lumbered with providing.'

Doubtless most of you would champion the health-giving, confidence-boosting and life-changing possibilities that exposure to dance affords youths in these or other schemes similar to the two spotlighted here. For me a lingering question is, what's in it for us oldsters? How does working with children benefit adults? What do we learn from them about the art form, or ourselves?

The reactions of the kids who took part in R.A.P. are documented in a small booklet, plus DVD, available by contacting dejadonne@dejadonnedonne.com Asked what impressed them most about the whole experience, one replied, 'The games we played and the language we heard and the art I had never done.' Another described it as 'fun, exciting, artistic, free, powerful and lovely,' while for a third it was 'amazing. I would tell my grandchildren about it.' Reading these inspired and inspiring words I have to ask myself, do I spend enough quality time with children?

Donald Hutera writes regularly for The Times, Time Out, Dance Europe, Dance Now and many other publications. He edited the autumn 2003 and summer 2005 editions of Animated, and writes Critical Faculties as a regular column.

contact donaldhutera@yahoo.com

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Animated: Summer 2007