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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Powerful momentum
Animated, Summer 2001. Anne Gallacher, talks about Birmingham Royal Ballet's radical move from separate artistic and education policies to a unified cultural policy placing education and community projects at the heart of the company's creative vision. A bold training and professional development programme is helping the company draw on its own artistic team. One of the first steps towards achieving this was a residency involving dancers Grace Maduell and Dominic Antonucci under the watchful eye of freelance mentor Dennie Wilson, composer Andrew Kristy and Redditch Borough Council Sports Development Unit
Background
When I wrote Birmingham Royal Ballet's (BRB) application for a Year of the Artist award towards the end of 1999, I had been in post just over a month and was by no means certain that we would be able to deliver the project I outlined. The company had a strong track record in education work, but it was delivered by freelance dancers all excellent teachers and animateurs, but not part of BRB. Furthermore the word 'education' was taken almost exclusively to mean schools, with most of the company's education work taking place in junior schools. Whilst the importance of work within that context is not in doubt, for BRB this heavy focus did not fit with the changing artistic vision of the company.

Since David Bintley became director in the mid - 1990s, the company's artistic policy has developed an increasingly strong emphasis on new work and on the creation of a repertoire of ballets, which appeal to adult audiences. The education department's work did not reflect that vision, nor did it link with the company's own artistic team.

Proposal Our Year of the Artist proposal was to have BRB dancers in residence with Redditch Borough Council Sports Development Unit, working with local adult aerobics classes. Clearly, this would be a new initiative for the company on many levels: our own dancers would be taking the lead, we would be working outside the formal education sector, and we would be working with adults. We did deliver the project in January and February this year, and it was a huge success on many fronts. So, what changed at BRB to make this feasible, how did we approach the project, and what were the outcomes?

Recent changes
In April 2000 - four months after our Year of the Artist application to West Midlands Arts had been submitted - a new three-year plan for the education department was put in place. This identified a number of areas for change, principally that the education programme should be brought much more closely in line with BRB's artistic vision, that priorities should be defined by the artistic policy, and that there needed to be increased involvement of members of the company in the work. There was also a clear recognition that high quality, innovative education work could, and should, offer creative development opportunities for our dancers, musicians and the company as a whole. David Bintley was completely committed to the proposals, and with the board's backing we began to implement the changes. Essentially, we wanted to move from an education department, which was just a room at the end of the corridor to the vast majority of dancers, to an education department, which was central to the work of BRB.

In order to achieve this the initial priority was to begin involving the company dancers, and raising awareness of education work amongst them had to be the first step. We had a head start here, as we run an MA programme for our dancers in partnership with the University of Birmingham, Westhill. Entitled Applied Studies in Dance, this programme is in its fourth year and has a strong education and community focus. The first cohort of students are now graduates, and the second cohort are currently approaching the end of their first year of study, giving us a core of almost 20 dancers (out of a total of 60 when the company is at full strength) who understand the principles behind our education programme, and have an interest in this area of work.

It was not difficult to gain those dancers' enthusiasm for the proposed changes, however we still had to address the need for skills development (the MA is, not essentially, practical). Of course, we already had a number of freelance dance animateurs who had been working for us on a regular basis, and they have skills and experience, which our own dancers do not yet have. In the summer of 2000, we began experimenting with a different approach to our education work, which involved those freelancers working in partnership with our company dancers. This enabled the company dancer to bring his or her understanding of the vision of BRB, and the freelancer to bring his or her animateur skills, with each learning from the other.

The project
Our Year of the Artist project took this approach a step further, with a freelance dancer, choreographer and teacher - Dennie Wilson - employed specifically to mentor two company dancers - Grace Maduell and Dominic Antonucci. Grace is a graduate of the MA programme and has recently retired from performing with the company; Dominic is one of the present cohort of MA students. Working with them was pianist and composer Andrew Kristy. Redditch Borough Council identified two fitness groups, which they wanted us to work with, and Grace and Dominic began by having an initial planning meeting with Dennie and then with the two group leaders. The residency was scheduled to run throughout January and February, and the company was due to perform at the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham in March, so the dancers decided to take one of the planned performance pieces as their stimulus: In The Upper Room, choreographed by Twyla Tharp to music by Philip Glass. This athletic piece lent itself very well to a project, which explored some of the crossovers between sports-based fitness training and ballet.

Grace's group was an over-50s class and entirely female whilst Dominic's group had a wider age range, and included a few men. It was decided that in each case the dance session would take place immediately after their normal workout. The structure was planned in close liaison with the two group leaders - Shireen Budeiri and Sonia Croasdell - whose support and input was vital to the success of the project.

Both dancers started by teaching short, simplified extracts from In The Upper Room, then used that as a basis for their own choreographic work. Andrew improvised music around the dance pieces they created. Dennie supported in a number of ways, such as helping with small group work, and giving feedback and discussing ideas with Grace and Dominic between their sessions. At the end of six weeks, the groups came together to share their work with each other.

The feedback from the groups and both group leaders has been extremely positive. Shireen Budeiri of Redditch Sports Development Unit told us that the project 'eradicated and rectified misconceptions and stereotypes' (1) about ballet, and that the groups developed 'co-ordination, agility, posture, stamina, strength, body awareness, space awareness, teamwork, memory skills, performance skills.' (2) An unexpected outcome for Shireen was the way in which individuals began to work with each other, something they would not normally have to do in an aerobics class. Many of the participants attend other aerobics classes run by the Sports Development Unit, and when they met up were often spotted practising little bits of choreography together in corners!

The groups also decided to come to a performance in Birmingham, and although many are theatre attenders, this was the first time most of them had seen ballet. The impact of seeing the piece which had been the initial stimulus for their own performance, and particularly of watching Dominic perform, added another dimension to the project and was seen by many as 'the icing on the cake'.

Grace and Dominic developed skills and confidence over the six-week project. As mentor, Dennie played a major role in facilitating this process, and by the end had supported their development in range of areas such as planning and structuring workshops, designing suitable warm-ups, and communicating not only with the project participants but also with the musician. All the BRB dancers who have worked in this way with experienced dance teachers and animateurs have found it a very helpful approach, and in this project we were able to consider and evaluate the mentoring role more thoroughly.

Dominic and Grace each negotiated their own collaborative approach with Dennie. Whilst that was extremely successful for this particular project, we are aware that we need to look more closely, at how we define this relationship for future projects. It is essential that each dancer and their mentor have the flexibility to work in a way which suits them both, but it is also important that each understands the other's role and the objectives behind the approach. Dennie's extensive experience as a teacher and trainer enabled her to support Grace and Dominic very effectively, however more generally we are also aware that we need to look at how we train our mentors - just because someone is a skilled animateur does not necessarily mean that they have the skills needed for this quite different role. A further issue, which was highlighted by Grace and Dominic during our Year of the Artist project was a lack of scheduled time for discussion with Dennie, and we will be building that into future projects. As our dancers are finding this an effective approach to their skills development, we need to address all these issues to make sure that we get it right.

So, 12 months after making the application, how did our Year of the Artist project fit with the education programme as it now stands? Things look and feel very different now, with many of our projects being led by company dancers mentored by education department staff or freelance dance animateurs. Examples include Jonathan Payn working with a group of 20 Birmingham teachers one evening a week over a period of two months, giving them the chance to develop choreographic and performance skills. Shortly before that, Lee Fisher spent an intensive week working with young people with learning difficulties at Fox Hollies Special School, involving every student and creating a stunning piece of dance with their performance company. Toby Norman-Wright has just completed a large-scale collaboration with Chitraleka & Company, working with four youth dance groups.

It has been exciting to see our dancers realise that, with training and support, they have the skills to undertake education and community projects. One of the stated aims of our education work is to provide creative and professional development opportunities for company dancers, and there is no doubt that those who are already actively involved find the work hugely stimulating and rewarding. The chance to work outside the formality of the ballet rehearsal environment, to be creative, to learn a new set of skills, to be challenged in a different way from usual, to take responsibility for a particular piece of work - all are personal and professional outcomes of leading education projects which our dancers describe. The day will come when our dancers will stop performing, and the key skills they are now developing will be crucial in helping them to prepare for future careers whether or not they decide to go into education and community work.

What next?
BRB's education work has radically changed in 18 months, but there is still a long way to go. We need to widen the group of dancers interested in and undertaking this work. We also need to establish more training and professional development opportunities for them to prepare more effectively for working in these contexts. The Arts Council of England has recently given us a Breakthrough Award, which is a one-off award of £60,000 in recognition of the ground-breaking partnerships and professional development opportunities we have developed, in particular the MA programme with the University of Birmingham, Westhill. That money is enabling us to develop more and wider opportunities, with a view to extending our support to our MA graduates and existing students, but also to reach other dancers in the company.

One of the most exciting initiatives which this award is supporting, is a nine-month placement in the education department for one of our MA graduates. This is enabling Grace Maduell to return to work with us in July, further developing her skills in delivering and managing education work, and at the same time enabling the company to benefit from the skills she gained on the course.

Ultimately as a company we intend to move from having separate artistic and education policies to one unified cultural policy, placing our education and community projects right at the heart of our work. We have taken the first steps towards this, and projects like our Year of the Artist residency in Redditch have helped to create a powerful momentum, which is keeping us on track.

Anne Gallacher, education director, Birmingham Royal Ballet.
Contact +44 (0)121 622 2555. Email annegallacher@brb.org.uk

References
1.&2. Budeiri Shireen, Redditch Sports Development Unit

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001