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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Tracks in the community
Animated, Summer 1999. Rather than remove a chosen few to a hothouse environment Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB) believes it is better to develop local opportunities where dance is an accepted component of an arts infrastructure and the potential of young people can enrich the local community as well as the artform. Jane Hackett, talks about the company's strategic initiative Dance Track where opportunity, information and funding combine to create pioneering dance provision
Freeze frame one: Photographer for local paper positions children with cheesy grins around adult holding out a giant plastic cheque. Freeze frame two: Two professional dancers stretching, spinning, leaping; sweat pours off them despite the freezing cold, cavernous hall. The live piano accompaniment reverberates around the space and the dancers are surrounded by a sea of fascinated young faces, including a group of boys who are convulsed with laughter at the sight of a pair of tights. Freeze frame three: About 30 boys and girls are spread throughout the room, each silently focusing on the patterns they are making in space, working individually yet still in unison with the whole group. For a few moments they have forgotten their everyday selves and are concentrating on finding something else. The silence and intensity of the moment confirm that something out of the ordinary is taking place and send a shiver down the spine.

The connection? Opportunity, information and funding, are all necessary components of Dance Track, a project which brings together the resources of Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB), the local community and sponsors with a local interest. The initial aim of the project was to provide access to ballet training for young people who would not otherwise have that opportunity, but it has developed to encompass so much more than that and continues to change as ideas become reality and groups become established. The scheme is based in the Moseley, King's Heath and Balsall Heath areas of Birmingham and encompasses a web of inter-connecting dance development initiatives. The areas were chosen partly for demographic reasons - a microcosm of Birmingham's rich mix of cultural and social heritage, many groups having had a lack of opportunity to interact with the existing arts provision in the city - but also for proximity to the resources at BRB and, not least, for the interest expressed in developing the arts in the area. Dance Track provides a starting point and then offers a guide to different ways of continuing to develop an interest in dance and the theatre, almost like a map of dance possibilities. Participants or groups can then choose their route: which direction they head in, where they make their stops and how far they go. There is also a route for the smaller number of young people who will choose to pursue a career in the world of dance. The journey starts each January for approximately 1,000 year four children, from 14 primary schools, and their teachers and families, with a series of introductory demonstrations in schools. For almost all the children and many of the adults this will be the first time that they have seen live ballet although, if the schools have played their part, there will be plenty of information displayed about dance in general, dance clubs and Dance Track.

The demonstrations are designed to catch the children's interest and be interactive, they focus on dancers as real people for whom dancing is a daily job that earns them a living, but they also look at ballet as a performance art that combines movement, music, drama and design. The range of possible careers in the theatre are discussed too. Next, every child participates in a dance workshop to experience some of the movements that they have seen. This is also an opportunity to identify a small number of children who seem to have the potential and desire to benefit from ballet training and they are invited to come and spend half a day with BRB teachers and dancers, to participate in dance, design and music workshops, have a short interview with the company physiotherapist and find out more about the Dance Track classes. Approximately 25 children each year are invited to join the training programme and offered weekly ballet classes and dancewear free of charge. There is generally a lot of enthusiasm after the practical sessions in school and all the children are given details of Discovery Dance Club which is run after school at a central venue and is non-selective, presenting different dance styles and an emphasis on creating dance pieces from the young peoples own ideas. Many of the schools are also now running their own dance clubs and schools can also approach BRB education department to collaborate on other dance, arts or cross-curricular projects.

We are currently working hard to ensure that as the children move on to secondary school the 'dance track' can continue. A youth dance group has grown out of a series of workshops with six secondary schools in the area and one secondary school is working towards gaining Arts College status at which time they will start to offer ballet training within the school curriculum. Thinking even further ahead, initial discussions are taking place with colleges that offer Theatre Studies courses and there are plans that eventually there will be a branch of the Royal Ballet School in Birmingham, so there will be connections in place for young people with a wide range of talents and interests, The dance 'climate' is further strengthened by projects involving community groups and collaborations with other Birmingham based dance artists, leading to cross-generational and cross-cultural work. The project is given a cohesive form by ensuring that there is connection and communication between the different strands, all contributing to the dance culture in the area. Besides affirming the value of dance as a healthy recreational activity and a form of expression and creativity, the project also aims to make careers in the arts a possibility. The youth group are holding workshops in design, music, marketing and PR, as well as dance, and community performances need volunteers to help with everything from making costumes and scenery to publicity and ticket sales so giving them the broadest experience of dance production. As groups become established and participants develop more skills, they will become self-supporting.

What makes this project different from other dance development schemes? Why have such a complex scheme, anyway? Are we trying to take on too much with all the different strands of work? What will BRB gain from this? The answers to all these questions are connected and they are largely to do with responsibility and strategic development.

I believe that whether you are working as an individual or part of a larger organisation, if you are going to open doors, create expectations and invite people to participate in activities and make them their own then you also have a responsibility to show possible ways forward and to ensure that there are connections or frameworks in place to facilitate further development. I also believe that a company such as BRB is in a privileged position with a wealth of resources at its disposal and therefore has a remit not only to produce work of the highest standard of artistic quality and integrity but also has a responsibility to invest time and resources into the community in order to bring about change and initiate developmental work. I am convinced, too, that an education and community programme that has merited a fairly large financial investment must be able to show that it is working strategically, supporting wider developments and bringing about lasting change.

BRB obviously has a particular interest in the group of children who are attending regular ballet classes. Access to ballet training has traditionally been limited by numerous economic, racial, social and cultural factors - the vocabulary and format of a 'traditional' ballet class can seem completely alien to the experience of many young people. Also, a tendency of teachers and selection panels to seek students who match a pre-conceived and very prescriptive 'ballet aesthetic' has meant that many talented young dancers have been unable to further their ballet training. To say that 'the talent is not out there' is not correct, as anyone who works extensively with young people will testify; the problem is that we are not tapping into the available potential and then, when we do find it, we do not always use appropriate and creative teaching methods. Dance Track will enlarge the pool of youngsters starting ballet classes and hopefully ensure that a more representative group of students enters further training. Again, there is a need for responsibility and strategy and this may include a re-assessment of selection methods and criteria, teaching methods and the ballet 'aesthetic'. BRB is in a position to influence these areas. Although good dance training undoubtedly has many benefits, encouraging physical and mental agility, raised self-esteem, creativity and artistic expression, it would be unfair to encourage young people if there is not a real chance of them continuing their training, preferably remaining as a group in their family environments and local community. It does not seem beneficial in the long-term to remove a chosen few to a hothouse environment; better to develop, if possible, local opportunities where dance is an accepted component of an arts infrastructure and the potential of the young people can enrich the quality of work.

No single organisation could provide all the components for a project like this, nor would it be right to do so. For Dance Track to succeed, a commitment, close collaboration and pooling of resources is needed from the ballet company, local community groups and schools, project participants and their families, the education authority, the city's arts and leisure department and the sponsors. Without any one of these stakeholders, the project would not be the same. The project is expensive to run and would be impossible without the support of a number of sponsors, all of whom maintain a strong interest in the scheme. The link with local businesses and trusts is valuable socially as well as financially, adding a further strand to the development; time and care is taken in formulating interesting and creative approaches with sponsors which will encourage them to want to be involved and offer support. This time is well spent as the scheme is strongly supported and representatives regularly visit the project, follow the progress of the groups and take anecdotes and photographs back to share with colleagues; this is also part of the educative process as the sponsors learn more about dance.

Although Dance Track seems to have developed in a relatively short time - just under three years - it has been in embryonic form since I was education officer for Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet in the mid 1980s and owes a lot to my past experience and colleagues. Many of the ideas were first developed for the Chance To Dance project which I researched and set up for the Royal Ballet but it is here in Birmingham where they are coming to fruition. With the support of the directors of BRB and the vision of local authorities and funders, we are developing a scheme which will enable many young people to develop their interest and potential for dance in a supportive environment in partnership with a range of professionals and maybe a lifelong interest in dance and theatre. For a smaller number, there will be the opportunity to follow a track from first experience of ballet, through early and professional training, to employment opportunities, all within Birmingham. The past six months have brought yet more connections with Choreographers in the Community. BRB dancers (most of whom are from the current cohort studying part-time at BRB for a Master's degree in Applied Dance in Community and Education) have worked with different groups from Dance Track to create dances for a community performance - an instant recycling of new skills into the community! So - dance tracks laid down in the community can lead to exciting future developments and create new opportunities, but they have to be laid strategically, owned responsibly by all the stakeholders and lead to a shared vision.

Jane Hackett, Head of Education, Birmingham Royal Ballet. Contact +44 (0)121 622 2555.

Birmingham Royal Ballet and Dance Track participants gratefully acknowledge support from: Marks and Spencer, The Hornton Trust, The Mercers' Company, Freed of London, Julienne and Porselli, Arabesque Sportswear Ltd. and Birmingham City Council,Year of the Arts.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001