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Animated Edition - Autumn 2007
Participating in ballet
Lee Fisher, Head of Creative Learning at Birmingham Royal Ballet
During my seventeen years as an artist with Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB) I was a part of a close-knit community. There was a shared sense of belonging to something that was greater than the sum of its parts, a collective drive to express ourselves and to do that next great show. The affirmation coming from friendships established over many years meant that beyond the parameters of the barres, there was a special understanding and reliable co-dependency. These shared experiences, good and bad; the infinite training, endless rehearsals and the bonds resulting from some of the more memorable performances are surely elements of a community dancing.

The presence of history that binds those in the ballet studio is not just about those relationships nurtured by the long tours and the search for the restaurant that's still serving at 10.45. Its presence is deeply rooted. It's about ballet's deference for tradition, its generosity in the passed down wisdom, and loyalty to the rituals that are its building blocks.

The vocabulary or technique is perhaps the most prominent of these building blocks and ironically both the most unifying and yet the most potentially destructive. In 'class', collectively the daily exercises can be equalising and at the same time the continual quest for individual perfection can be soul destroying. Yet this shared language also contributes to the sense of self and group identity and the familiarity allows a sense of security and times for meditation and reflection.

Now, as a dance artist, the rituals and structure ballet provides, give me, and the groups I work with, an authentic base from which to create, perform and appreciate dance.

Perhaps the best example of this is Freefall Dance Company. Freefall was formed in 2002 evolving from a long-term partnership and forming just one part of mutually beneficial ongoing relationship between Birmingham Royal Ballet and Fox Hollies Performing Arts College. With both partners keen to extend their practice and recognising that quality dance opportunities beyond the school day were limited, it was established to provide a training and performing platform for highly gifted young people with severe learning difficulties. Using ballet alongside the expertise that the Arts College brings to Freefall has been (and remains) key in my development as a dance artist.

There are currently nine dancers in the company. They were invited to join in recognition of the talent, creativity and enthusiasm for dance shown within a wide range of curricular and out of hours work with BRB.

The company meets once a week, and for intensive periods during holiday times, at BRB studios. The two-hour sessions are divided equally each beginning with ballet technique training and closing with choreographic work for forthcoming performances. Freefall's approach works at dovetailing the best of community dance practice with its principles of empowerment, creativity and ownership with the best that ballet can offer with its pillars of tradition, attention to detail and discipline.

Ballet brings much to Freefall. The ritual that the ballet class provides, offers a familiarity that nurtures a sense of belonging and ownership over our work. The progressive sequence of barre exercises gives a holistic and ready-made model through which to develop control, flexibility, co-ordination and strength. In turn, a fundamental understanding of the principles of ballet empowers the self-identification of explicit tangible goals to work towards, the acquisition of these new skills create a pride and pleasure which nurture self-esteem. Subsequently, the ballet skills have extended our dance vocabulary, the language of ballet meaning as communicators we have more impact cross culturally. What is more, the technique often acts as a catalyst for creative work.

The changes that we have seen resulting from the technique training have been exciting. In terms of action research we are keen to explore further the generic benefits of a weekly routine involving a carefully planned barre and the unsupported exercises performed by professional ballet dancers and how such a programme might dovetail into a normal school day for primary school pupils.

The ballet tradition of the 'passed down experience' is extending to the Freefall dancers too and we are now a part of the wider traditions and community of ballet. We have just completed, with the support of Creative Partnerships, Freefall's second educational tour. Alongside a good disability awareness model, created and led by Fox Hollies, the dancers have now worked with 10 Birmingham primary schools, leading teachers and pupils, using their knowledge of ballet as their underlying rigour. The openness of these young audiences to the experience and their affirmation of the skills the Freefall dancers brought to it was wonderful.

On the surface it might seem that ballet has to justify itself within community dance. At times the loyalty to its traditions can be misplaced, in terms of a creative dialogue a permissive environment doesn't always exist within the studio and arguably ballet can be alienating and exclusive. However, it needn't be. Ballet has never been a static art-form and it will continue to evolve. With creative and sensitive application the art-form can be accessible to all and offer many of the same benefits to professional and community dancer alike.

Lee Fisher can be contacted on leefisher@brb.org

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Animated: Autumn 2007