Ewe-turn at the festival of dance: A sheep is sharing the stage to give an arts event a 'taste of the outdoors'. Louise Levene reports

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BENSON, a Teeswater ewe, will again take centre-stage at the Turning World international dance festival in central London tonight.

But there are no steps for her to learn. As on her debut at The Place theatre last night, dancers choreographed by Michele Anne de Mey of Belgium will whirl around her while she just stands there, sheepishly listening to Scarlatti.

Was a live sheep necessary? John Ashford, artistic director of The Place, is in no doubt of the animal's central importance. 'The sheep says that it's pastoral. It brings into the theatre a taste of the outdoors and a natural pace of things and infects what happens in the dance and brings a great joy to it. I think it's unusual and delightful.' Besides, he added, 'people like sheep'.

The theatre's only previous brush with the animal kingdom was in 1991 when an avant-garde company from Budapest had to drop plans to throw live rabbits at each other for fear of offending British tastes. Benson's undemanding performance is unlikely to rattle the cages of militants in the animal rights movement. Benson was brought in from Freightliners City Farm, a cosy collection of nice clean cows, pigs and hens who entertain the city- bred children of north London.

Her handler, Colin Johnson, who manages the farm, was very protective before Benson's two-night stand: 'I have been assured that nothing will be done that is undignified.'

Rehearsals were not particularly intensive, he admitted, although 'we've been practising with the halter for the last fortnight. She is very thick. I picked her because she has the maddest looking face'.

It could all end in disaster, he agreed. 'She may charge through the audience. They can run quite fast.' However, every care has been taken and her three-week-old lamb is travelling to the theatre with her to keep her happy.

Does she get her own dressing room? 'I would trust so. Who would want to share with her? Besides, she'll want her privacy as she'll be breastfeeding between acts. If she finds it too tiring her understudy Clover may go on on the last night.' In which case they will presumably split the fee of pounds 150 which goes towards the upkeep of their home, whose survival is threatened by a recent cut in funding.