Children are no strangers to the cinema, where they can watch a dizzying array of films, from animated cartoons to blockbuster musicals to the latest rite-of-passage teen hits.
But ballet is not a genre they get out the popcorn for. And that, according to David Nixon, artistic director of Northern Ballet, is a shame.
This year, in a series of specially crafted cinematic productions at mainstream cinemas all over the UK, his dance company will try to turn on a new generation to ballet by allowing them to watch world-class dancers at their local Odeon, Cineworld or Picturehouse.
“There’s an unconscious bias towards ballet. Dads will say to their sons, oh, you don’t want to do ballet – that’s for girls,” says Nixon. “But often they’ve never even seen a ballet! Now it’s so physical, so artistic, that I think productions can be enjoyed across the genders.” qilinpoker
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“You have children-specific theatres in Europe where they’re just addressing young people. The kind of things that children like and what appeals to them and what inspires them and ignites their imagination is different to adults. I think it’s really important at that age to add as much stimulus as possible,” he adds.
Shot as 40-minute films in vibrant high-definition colours, the Bite-Sized Ballets series will kick off with an adaptation of the Tortoise & the Hare, to be followed by Elves & the Shoemaker and Three Little Pigs. At the start of each film, the story is narrated on screen and dance instructors show children how to do some of the moves to create a sort of dancealong.
The ballet then begins, and like a live performance there are no words, just an original musical score.
How you use your body as a tool is an important part of the education, says Nixon. “Part of the problem with kids sitting in front of iPads all the time is that they’ve stopped using their physicality; you need to engage your body as well in this life and learn how expressive it can be and how it can serve you,” he says. Nixon believes exposure to ballet is important to children’s creative and intellectual development, but getting them into live shows is a barrier. So the cinema, he hopes, is a way to make it more accessible nationally.
Daniel de Andrade, the films’ choreographer, says you inevitably miss some of the “magic of live theatre”, but believes the story-telling nature of the ballets translates well to the cinema. “With eight different cameras all over the place, some of them really, really close, you feel like you’re almost on stage with the dancers,” he says.
One of those dancers, Gavin McCaig, has been involved in Northern Ballet’s live children’s productions since they started seven years ago. He wears a huge shell on his back as the tortoise (made pliable so he can still do the moves). “I think anyone being exposed to theatre and dance, at an early age, can go on to have a new perspective about what they want to do in life. Maybe they want to get involved in the arts, or they see that you can go to dance classes and it will lead to something,” he says.
McCaig, who fell in love with dance after seeing a production of Cats, aged six, says cinema dilutes the perceived elitism of ballet. “The cinema has none of the stigma that sometimes surrounds going to the theatre, it’s a cheap, accessible place,” he says.
Shelagh O’Connell, the head of English at a west London school, agrees. “If you can’t be there, seeing a theatrical production on screen is the next best thing,” she says.
Kaylee Marko and, right, Gavin McCaig in Northern Ballet’s Tortoise & the Hare.
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Kaylee Marko and, right, Gavin McCaig in Northern Ballet’s Tortoise & the Hare. Photograph: Brian Slater/Northern Ballet
O’Connell says children’s exposure to theatre has suffered in recent years not only because it is expensive for families, but because schools, too, are more cash-strapped. “Arts and dance and drama motivate children and fill them with confidence but giving them a first-hand experience of the theatre is really hard now,” she says.
It’s a concern, she adds, that the “cultural privilege” of private schools seems to be growing. “Private schools have their own theatres, drama departments, and continuously promote those things. It’s no wonder private school people are dominating the profession,” she says.
Nixon agrees there is a disparity between private and state schools, but says dance and the arts are “fantastic careers” for young people from more disadvantaged backgrounds. “They tend to be creative, and ballet is something you can do without a lot of higher education schooling,” he says.
Last week a report by the Fabian Society found that two-thirds (68%) of state primary school teachers in England believe there is less arts education now than in 2010, and half (49%) say the quality of what remains has decreased.
Northern Ballet’s artistic associate, de Andrade, hopes the cinema will breathe new life into ballet. His dancers perform 130 shows a year all over the country, he says, so he sees close-up the impact theatre can have.
“When the tortoise and the hare cross the finish line, the hare losing, the tortoise tumbling slow motion to victory, the children go absolutely berserk, the parents too. They laugh, they cry, they cheer, it’s like they’re living the story as it happens,” he says.