Perchance to dance in Sydenham

Inaccessible? Ballet? Louise Levene detects distinct enthusiasm in south-east London
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The Independent Culture
You can get a GCSE in Dance now, you know. It may sound like a doss but the fact that students at the Royal Ballet school do not automatically get A grades suggests that it isn't a piece of cake. These facts emerge during a trip to view the Royal Ballet Education Department's latest venture at Sydenham School for Girls, where Royal Ballet dancers, together with Valli Subbiah and the Academy of Indian Dance, are working with that most handicapped and difficult of subjects: the Adolescent Female. This year's project is pegged to a South Indian exhibition at the Horniman Museum and a Southern dance style has been selected to reflect this.

The resulting collaboration is a heady fusion of South India and south- east London - not as daft as it sounds: Bharata Natyam's notoriously complex rhythms come relatively easily to classes of teenagers used to clubbing to Bhangra rap. The project isn't just about dance, but also deals with the music and stage and costume design that go into creating a performance that will involve the appropriate departments of four local schools. The sixty dancers finally get together on 26 April for two performances of Samsara at the 800-seater Lewisham Theatre.

Once upon a time, ballet companies attempted to spread the word by taking tutu and tights into the classroom, showing the inmates a few fish dives then trying to sell tickets to the genuine article. This approach is no longer fashionable; now the emphasis is on participation. However, given that ballet per se is not something that just anyone can do, the divine art of Nijinsky and Nureyev is considerably modified before it reaches Sydenham School for Girls. The guiding philosophy of the project is that ballet and opera are "inaccessible" (inverted commas supplied by Darryl Jaffray, The Royal Ballet Education Officer, who sketches them delicately in the air with her fingertips). "The people that we work with are the 95 per cent that don't normally go to ballet."

Sydenham is one of the flagships of the project, with a strong music department and an excellent dance teacher, but Darryl finds huge variations from school to school and borough to borough. "It's heartbreaking to see the difference," she says. However, she is keen not to seem patronising. "It's not about distributing largesse to all these poor, disadvantaged people." Still, she does admit that the collaboration often does more than teach them about dance; in some cases general behaviour and attitude can be improved by involvement with the project - "It gives them a chance to shine," she enthuses.

They are certainly having a very good time. The presence of a trench- coated harpie, shorthand notebook in hand, provokes neither shyness nor mischief, and the presence of one of the country's leading dance photographers is absolutely no problem at all. On the contrary, this lot "love having their photo taken". Not so the musicians, a decidedly unflamboyant-looking band who don't appear to be enjoying themselves hugely and would rather not have a photographic record of the experience thank you very much. But then, the same is often true of the Opera House orchestra.

It's a big class of girls aged 14-15. As with any group of this age, their physical age ranges from 11 to 35. At the rehearsal stage, their enthusiasm is by far the most enjoyable aspect of the performance. For Darryl Jaffray, the choreography is the most important thing: "Sometimes I've seen more interesting and original choreography from young people who don't dance than from professionals". She admits to being moved to tears by a group of 10-year-olds from Eastleigh. Has she ever detected any, er, talent among her brood? Discovering great dancers, blushing unseen, is not the point of this particular project (that function is performed by the wholly separate enterprise Chance to Dance), but (just out of interest) can any of them really dance? She appears genuinely nonplussed. "I don't look at them in that way."

For further information about the Royal Ballet Education Department's work call 0171- 212 9410. For tickets for the 5pm or 7.30pm performances of `Samsara' at the Lewisham Theatre, Lewisham Way, London SE26 ring the box-office on 0181-690 0002. Tickets £3.75 (£1.80 concessions)