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Animated Edition - Summer 2004
Safahr: a voyage - developing diverse audiences with parents and schools
Rachel Carter, Programme Coordinator of Creative Partnerships Birmingham uncovers some unexpected learning about developing diverse audiences in their partnership with Birmingham Royal Ballet and local schools
On 10th March 2004, two capacity performances of a new production called Safahr were staged in Birmingham Royal Ballet's spring season at the Birmingham Hippodrome. For both performances the 1800-seat auditorium was filled with young people and adults from across Birmingham, the West Midlands and beyond, for many of whom this was a first visit to the theatre. To a much greater degree then usual it was a theatre audience that represented the ethnic and racial demographics of contemporary Birmingham. Safahr (from the Urdu/Persian meaning to journey, to voyage, to travel an expedition) was the culmination of a Birmingham Royal Ballet project - Telling Tales - funded by Creative Partnerships Birmingham.

From September 2002 to March 2004 Birmingham Royal Ballet worked with Anderton Park Primary, Dame Ellen Pinsent Special Primary, Lillian de Lissa Nursery, Moor Green Infants, Fox Hollies Special Secondary and Queensbridge Secondary (who hold joint Performing Arts College status) to develop a large scale collaborative project to bring the schools together and allow them to share experiences across their diverse school communities. Some schools have extensive experience of working with creative organizations, some have had relatively little, but all see engaging young people and their parents in creative and cultural activities as a key priority.

Detailed planning began in earnest in Autumn 2002, and a series of "taster" workshops that term helped to cement a strong working relationship between BRB Education and the 6 schools. From January 2003 artists from a range of artforms - including BRB dancers and musicians - collected and explored stories about journeys from the six different school communities. Over 18 months more than 500 young people aged from 3 to 19 as well as members of the community were involved as researchers, story makers, composers, designers, dancers and writers. These stories and ideas were transformed into the performance at the Hippodrome by 120 young people and one parent, Paula Phillips (parent of Ben Phillips from Fox Hollies) BRB's orchestra - the Royal Ballet Sinfonia - performed alongside the young people with a score composed by Peter McGowan and young people from the participating schools. The set and costumes were created by designer Helen Davies, who used the young people's design ideas as her starting point. The performance was coordinated artistically by Dinos Aristidou, a freelance theatre director who has worked for BRB's Education department throughout the project, working alongside storyteller Therese Collins.

A key aim of the project was to try to follow, as far as possible, an authentic artistic process from starting-point to final performance. This saw the pupils, teachers, parents and the wider school community involved in, and having access to, the highest quality creative practitioners, materials, performance space and audiences that Birmingham has to offer.

Allowing young people time to work through their own creative processes meant that they have been able to safely examine their own world and search for solutions to the issues that they are confronted with on a daily basis. Dinos Aristodou and Therese Collins worked intensively with the schools and wider community to collect stories, real and fictional, about journeys. These stories reflected the cultural diversity and traditions of the local communities, such as the sisters-in-law stealing the groom's shoes at Indian weddings. The story of Ibn Battuta (1304-68) was discovered by chance during this collection phase as Dinos worked with children at Anderton Park School. BRB and the young people were inspired by the tales of this Muslim traveller, who is little known and largely uncelebrated in the Western world. Ibn Battuta set off at the age of 21 on the pilgrimage or Hajj to the sacred city of Mecca, and returned home 30 years later, after traveling through India, China, Arabia and the Maldives. Battuta's journey and stories of shoes became the basis for the entire production.

Phase Two of the project saw the participants explore and experiment with the stories. They identified ways of telling stories in dance and performance. During Phase Three, key ideas and stories generated were identified and then looked at from different angles by the young people, members of the community, artists and teachers. From this one story emerged, made up of everyone's and no-one's story.

This was followed by the Creation Phase, when the schools were allocated a section of the story to develop into a piece of dance theatre. Each school worked with a BRB dancer to create their school's individual piece, and towards the end of the process all the children and young people worked together with BRB's Director, David Bintley, who choreographed the finale. Students from Queensbridge and Fox Hollies Performing Arts College were identified as core characters and they developed their roles and wrote their script.

The shoetellers travel the world, trading their magic shoes for stories, using the stars to find their way home. When the Keeper of the Skies takes away the stars as punishment for the way she has been treated, a group of young Starhunters set out on a journey to solve a riddle and retrieve the stars. From the Jungle of the Wise to the Ice Castle in the frozen lands, the young Starhunters encounter the dreaded Shadows, the terrifying Djinns and the Giant Spider, keeper of the keys, before they find the Gateway of the Skies and discover the secret that will save their world.

A key element to the success of the project, and the packed auditorium for both performances, was the involvement of parents and the wider community in the process of creating the work. Dinos Aristodou and Therese Collins worked with parents groups in three of the participating schools: Anderton Park, Dame Ellen Pinsent and Fox Hollies School. At Dame Ellen Pinsent a group of up to 15 Asian (largely Pakistani) mothers took part, working with Therese through the school's Home School Liaison Worker.

''The confidence has increased in these parents to try storytelling activities at home with their children.'' Afia Yaquob, Home School Liaison Worker.

Some of the mothers went home between sessions and made artefacts to bring to school. One parent, Gulzar Begum made a beautiful boat and said '"throughout this whole experience my son and I have sailed together''. The patterns on the boat represented their journey. Another parent, Shaheen Akhtar, speaking of Dinos and the BRB dancers said '' I always dreamt to give my son the best and this was the dream coming true''. A recording of Yasmin Begum's voice was used in the performance and she said she "was overwhelmed!"

Out of 28 Asian families asked to come to the performance by Dame Ellen Pinsent School, 22 came with extended family members. They filled 3 minibuses paid for by Creative Partnerships. Many had never been to a performance in a theatre before or even been out after dark. . Parents from the Rednal area of Birmingham came to see their children perform, and these are parents who almost never come to school, as Rednal is far from the school. The Asian families appreciated that their culture and languages where reflected within the project and performance.

At Anderton Park Primary (a school where every pupil has English as an additional language), a very similar story is told. Celia Reeves (Home School Liaison and Special Educational Needs Coordinator) meets with a group of six Asian mothers on a weekly basis. This group also worked with Dinos and Therese, looking at different stories and traditions from their cultures (mainly Pakistani and Miripuri). This group became very involved in different aspects of the project, including sewing story bags. These story bags were given to each of the participating schools, so they could physically 'collect their stories' (especially important for the younger children) and gather together artefacts and memontoes. After a couple of weeks of work with Celia, Therese and Dinos, four other parents saw how good the work was and joined the group. They started to meet twice a week and got involved in making the costumes, including the Djinn masks for the year five pupils who took part in the performance. The group continues to grow in number and continues to meet. According to Celia, their confidence and self esteem and pride for their sons' and daughters' school have grown massively. As a group they now want to continue to work with the school and with Creative Partnerships.

The involvement of parents and the wider community of the schools enabled a better understanding and appreciation of what was happening. One of the fathers at Anderton Park Primary told Celia Reeves "I would never have let my children go to the theatre, but now (after seeing Safahr) I realise that it is OK and respectful and I will encourage them to go again." This particular family have since booked to go and see another performance at the Hippodrome. Another mother said "I didn't think we could ever be involved in something as important as this." Many parents were initially concerned about the appropriateness of work with a theatre for their children - "Theatres are not for Muslim people" was one of a number of similar comments - but the work with the parent group built confidence, knowledge and trust that the work would engage and positively reflect the pupils' religious beliefs.

Celia Reeves said "When I was a child I read a lot about Egypt, my father took me to an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, but when I actually went to Egypt, that's when it became real to me. You can talk about the benefits of projects like this and things like going to the theatre, but until you actually experience and go and see for yourself, you won't understand".

The other successful element for getting parents, families and members of the wider community to the Hippodrome on 10th March was the transport arrangements that were put in place. Creative Partnerships Birmingham paid for coaches and minibuses to transport people to the theatre. Reputable coach companies were used including Aziz coaches (a company widely used by the Asian population of South Birmingham). The Creative Partnerships team spent considerable time consulting schools and the parents about the arrangements needed to support parents attending the event. At Anderton Park School the critical issue was that parents (mothers in particular) needed an Aziz coach from school to the Hippodrome. The journey from home to school is a familiar and culturally sanctioned one. In order for parents to attend Safahr, that journey needed to be also. In the case of the special schools care was taken to offer transport that would allow parents, siblings and pupils with disabilities to travel together.

Safahr's most visible signifier of parental involvement and integrated practice was the opening sequence which saw Paula Phillips and her two sons perform alongside one another. Paula was drawn into the project as part of a parent group developed by Dinos at Fox Hollies school. Paula's enthusiasm drew in her younger son (who attends Archbishop Ilsley Secondary), but also because the project gave him a chance to work alongside Ben in a situation where their contributions were equally valuable and valued. For the Creative Partnerships team, BRB and the schools, the commitment to integration in the project extended beyond the performance into areas that we hadn't anticipated encountering like audience development and culturally sensitive travel arrangements. Safahr has been a learning journey for us that will have a lasting impact in terms of our knowledge about how to work meaningfully in dialogue with Birmingham's many diverse communities.

Rachel Carter can be contacted at Creative Partnerships Birmingham on 0121 224 7447 or see for more information.

CP Birmingham is working with 26 schools, clustered in five groups across the city, to develop long term, sustainable partnerships between creative organisations and schools. These partnerships allow schools to be supported by creative professionals to develop work across the school curriculum, in science, maths, ICT, as well as arts and humanities. The fundamental principle underpinning the programme is to develop creative citizenship, drawing inspiration from Birmingham's diverse communities and promoting engagement with creativity and culture.

With thanks to pupils and staff at all six schools and to all at Birmingham Royal Ballet; special thanks to Kathy Earley, Celia Reeves and Afia Yaquob for quotes and observations.

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Animated: Summer 2004