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Animated Edition - Spring 2002
Smashing stereotypes
Boys in Babergh was a radical initiative designed to smash stereotypes. What began as intensive educational work in schools, galvanising the skills, confidence and enthusiasm of boys and teachers alike, transformed into a profound artistic experience. One hundred and fifty boys performed at international concert venue, Snape Maltings. It was a clear affirmation of the ethos of the project for the boys and their families, for the schools and the sponsors. When the artist and teacher fuse, Michael Platt reflects, we are empowered with knowledge and skills, which can change lives. Here he explains
'Here's a challenge for you! Go into five schools in a rural area of rural Suffolk and persuade 150 teenage boys that they can dance - that they want to dance!' In February 2001, Assis Carreiro, director of DanceEast, set my mind racing in equal measures of excitement and trepidation when she planted the idea of a boys dance project. We wanted to encourage and involve boys in dance and smash a few stereotypes along the way! I relished this opportunity to work in an all- male environment where the self-consciousness and attitude sometimes found in a mixed class is not present. A year after its conception, Boys in Babergh is firmly established and it is thrilling to see boys aged between 11 and 14 engage wholeheartedly in the physical and creative exhilaration of dance.

Embarking on the Project, the boys soon realised that the workload and commitment required of them would be both complex and demanding. This is where the knowledge of a final performance became a powerful creative tool enabling me to sustain the boys for the duration of this intense journey. The knowledge of an ultimate destination - the performance at Snape Maltings international concert hall - and a limited time in which to reach it forged the link between each weekly session.

I passionately believe that performance opportunities raise the standards of young people's dancing. Developing skills, teaching technique and providing creative opportunities for dancers to explore ideas are important but not ends in themselves. What is important is that young people take ownership for their own learning and apply their skills in a creative way, striving to achieve their best.

A vital element contributing to the success of the project was the performance outcome. It forced the boys to make connections between their physical bodies and their imaginations - between functional action and expressive movement. It also shifted the focus of weekly work away from individuals acquiring skills, to an emphasis on the group working together within a shared space towards a shared goal. The ego was removed from the learning situation. The choreographic process nurtured the genuine fusion of education and art as it placed demands on the boys to take increasing responsibility in their artistic and social learning as well as fulfilling a creative vision.

The performance of Myth in December was not the end of the voyage, merely a port of call. With tremendous vision, DanceEast has ensured the legacy of the Boys in Babergh Project in the establishment of an all male youth dance company in Suffolk. What began as intensive educational work in schools, galvanising the skills, confidence and enthusiasm of boys and teachers alike, transformed into a profound and unique artistic experience. The final performance was a clear affirmation of the ethos of the project for the boys and their families, for the schools and the sponsors. Public affirmation of this kind facilitates the security of establishing an ongoing community group.

From the outset of the project, we decided that a high profile launch was needed to inspire the boys and to break down negative preconceptions about dance. We wanted each group to be aware that they formed one piece of a jigsaw that would finally connect together to create a powerful, all-male dance performance. Which venue in Suffolk would be likely to appeal to teenage boys and help us to change perceptions about boys and dance? With the support of Sacha Frost (education projects manager for Ipswich Town Football Club) and the added appeal of the club having recently moved into the Premier League Division, we were able to officially launch the Boys in Babergh Dance Project with a visit by all the participating boys to Ipswich Town Football Club in September 2001.

This was an incredible day in which all the boys met together for the first time and were given an in-depth guided tour of the ground. More importantly, they took part in a range of practical and observational activities exploring the links between dance and football. On the pitch the boys were coached in dance and fitness skills used by the Brazilian National Football team as well as a speed, agility and quickness challenge based on an international approach to teaching the mechanics of running. The boys were dancing with a football and each other, exploring the importance of physical fitness and teamwork. Back in the club, we watched dance on film including the BBC Sportsbank series and excerpts from Billy Elliot, illustrating ways in which dance uses physical skills and contrasting energy and dynamics to communicate ideas. This was brought vividly to life by an all-male dance performance and a talk by Darren Ellis from Random Dance Company. Permeating all these activities were the three concepts we identified as being shared by dance and football;

  • Physical skills

  • Fitness, technical control, agility, flexibility, balance, co-ordination

  • Imagination and creativity using the physically trained body as an instrument to solve problems, create solutions, express ideas and communicate

  • Social skills - team work, co-operation, trust, developing respect for each individual and their skills, sharing skills to achieve a common aim.

I consider myself an artist first and foremost but an artist who has had the good fortune to work in schools for thelast 14 years. The confidence engendered by this teaching experience promotes a sense of fearlessness, which fuels my creativity and conviction in a project of this kind. The composer Pierre Boulez describes it as '... a culture of short term infallibility ...' he goes on to explain'... without this provisory compass - 'I am absolutely right' ? [the artist] would hesitate to venture into virgin territory' (1) As the creative vision of a final performance bubbles up full of excitement and colour I really do begin to see the piece being danced, not the detail, but the dynamics, shapes and lines of energy. As a performer and director, I need this vision to inspire me and to nourish me along the journey. It frequently changes and transforms in the light of the process but it is the nugget of magic, which I want to create and communicate. Holding on to this ensures that the end product has educational and artistic integrity fulfilling the needs of the young people and the teacher/director in an organic, collaborative process. But, having a creative vision and working with young people is a combination that demands conviction, patience and self-belief. Through working with artists in schools and my own teaching experience, I have learned ways to deconstruct the creative vision so it will be accessible. It will not be realised overnight as it must be broken down into a series of achievable steps in isolation these may appear to be removed from the original idea, but slowly, piece-by-piece they will inform each other and build together to cumulatively achieve the vision. This deconstruction of the creative vision requires one to pinpoint exactly what the movement objective of each lesson will be. It is a process of isolating the physical skills required, equipping the dancers with the necessary movement vocabulary to explore and develop ideas that will eventually contribute to the fulfilment of it.

The very nature of this process means that the unexpected, the spontaneous, the mistakes all influence the final product. These unforeseen events ensure the young people's ownership of the evolving piece as much as their actual participation in it. This is where the role of teacher and director merge - simultaneously the teacher is breaking the vision down into accessible component parts whilst the eagle eye of the director searches for the unforeseen act which can inspire and transform the vision. Working as a director has taught me the need to guide an audience along the journey of a performance using the visual and auditory semiotic theatre signs to ensure understanding of what they see and hear. This desire for clarity in communication has informed my work as a choreographer. I undertake a quest to ensure each body in class or on stage belongs to an intelligent dancer who knows and understands what they are doing and why they are doing it. As individuals or part of an ensemble, the dancers must collectively contribute to the overall intention of the piece. If the dancers know the intention behind their movement, if they can relate every gesture, movement and relationship within the dance to the original stimulus, they can invest their movement with a clear dynamic, enriching the clarity and quality of their dance. I researched a wealth a Greek mythology in texts and images the powerful characters and universal themes contained within these stories and artefacts would, I was sure, appeal to the age group of the boys I was working with. I did not want to simply tell stories through movement. Instead, I chose to isolate significant events and images, which would intrigue the boys and offer potential for movement exploration. The intended outcome would be to create a collage of images, abstracted from the stimulus, juxtaposed on stage to create a vibrant, coherent performance. It would not be literal and yet at all times the boys would be able to locate the original story within their own movement thus ensuring the integrity of their dance.

Working with all male groups not only influenced my choice of material but also affected my style of teaching. Initial work was very directed and highly structured, setting short-term tasks, which were challenging but achievable so as to keep the pace of the lessons fast and to ensure the boys maintained interest and energy. Very soon the outcome of the tasks could be linked together like the pieces of a jigsaw creating complex patterns. Initially I explored a language of movement conventionally thought of as appropriate for boys - strong, rhythmic sequences, weight taking and trust exercises. These movements did appeal, enabling the groups to develop a trust in me and the type of work I was requiring of them. At the same time, they gained confidence in their dancing. The mythological stimulus was not made explicit - in the first four sessions we worked within a physical rather than imaginative dimension learning steps, devising action sequences and acquiring technical skills to support and give weight. Focusing on the physical was a deliberate choice. I was aware of the rich imaginative content of the myths, but I was also aware of their potential for encouraging stereotypical responses. Only in week five, when the component parts had been created and the required technical skills mastered did I introduce the myth on which each dance was based and show the visual images. The excitement in the room was palpable as the boys made clear connections between the abstract movement patterns they had developed and the vivid words and images. Now they were ready for a challenging, creative task as I asked them to invest their previously constructed work with an intention arising from the themes or episodes in the myth. They could not radically change their movements, rather they were required to layer them with a dynamic quality, which would reflect and communicate the contrasting events in the narrative.

By introducing the stimulus, after the material had been created I was able to move into a much richer dynamic realm of light, soft and fluid movement without any self-consciousness or reluctance from the boys. They were confident with their dance ideas and could now concentrate on investing these with the colour and magic, which they had identified within the stories. Exciting duets developed as the boys lifted, turned and caught each other capturing a feeling of flight. A quality of delicacy and finely focused softness emerged in contrast to the previous heavy, earthbound movements. I could not have encouraged this lightness, where the boys worked within a symbolic dimension to communicate ideas through abstract movement, if I had not begun in the tangible, physical world. Building a dance vocabulary and building confidence went hand in hand, step by step, promoting a positive working environment of mutual trust and a willingness to take risks.

Boys in Babergh was, and continues to be, an inspirational project, proving to the participants and wider community that boys can dance with sensitivity and strength and enjoy every minute of it. From the collaboration between a team of experienced artists working with schools, there emerged a rich artistic outcome, embedded in the community from which it arose. The legacy of collaboration and quality permeates the next phase of the project as the boys prepare a new work Young Brothers with Arc Dance Company and other all male groups from across the Eastern region.

The worlds of education and the arts must not be segregated they share so much. When the artist and teacher in us fuse, we are empowered with knowledge and skills, which can change lives. As one of the boys said after the show: 'I used to think dancing was for girls, damn was I wrong! '(2)

Michael Platt, advisory teacher for dance, Suffolk County Council. Contact michael.platt@educ.suffolkcc.gov.uk

Reference
1. Boulez, Pierre, Boulez on Music Today, Trans Bradshaw, Susan, and Bennett, Richard Rodney, Faber and Faber, London, 1971
2. Member of the Boys in Babergh cast, 2002.

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Animated: Spring 2002