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ANALYSIS: Ballet is no longer an elite pastime and caters for all; As the New Generation Arts Festival swings into life, Christopher Barron, chief executive of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, explains why dance is a powerful tool for social change.

Last Wednesday in the Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre, 22 Birmingham schools brought 1,100 schoolchildren to see a matinee of Coppelia performed by Birmingham Royal Ballet. This was a special performance for schools scheduled late in the day by popular demand. The children came fully prepared for Coppelia having participated in workshops in their individual schools to help demystify ballet and learn about the production.

The audience consisted largely of children from the many different ethnic communities that have made Birmingham home. The enthusiasm for the ballet was obvious amongst these children of similar age, educated together in the city. They found their own moments in the ballet to react to, laugh at, be amazed by etc.

The magic of the stage performances drew them together in common enjoyment and learning. Coppelia has a universal quality - it provides so much to look at and hear to spark the imagination of all ages. And that's a lesson that Birmingham Royal Ballet learnt again this April in Norfolk, Virginia, USA, where 1,800 schoolchildren were captivated by a specially prepared version of The Sleeping Beauty. The audience was predominantly black or mixed race.

Ballet companies are often distinguished by their own internal internationalism. Birmingham Royal Ballet is no exception. Our dancers come from 16 different countries to work in the common language of English here in Birmingham. On stage that afternoon the role of Franz was danced by Tyrone Singleton, a British dancer of mixed race, making his debut in the role. Tyrone is a remarkable role model. Aged just 21, he trained for ballet from the age of three and has matured as a fine dancer of the new generation. Any cultural barriers to his progress have not been obvious.

Ballet has seemed for some to be a private and elite affair surrounded by a number of misconceptions. On the other hand ballet is also a part of the cultural offer that attracts large numbers of people. The classical ballets are spectacles and rival the most extravagant West End shows. Those in the audience last week and those who saw the Channel 4 programmes of Ballet Hoo! will have recognised how relevant ballet is and how powerful it can be as a force for social change. The participants of Ballet Hoo! came from difficult backgrounds, they had little or no knowledge of ballet and were naturally suspicious of why they were being involved. Well, the rest, as they say, is history and the changed lives of the young people involved is the subject of much reflection within the statutory authorities that care for young people. Ballet Hoo! is considered an unusual model of good practice.

The split of cultural activity and investment between London and the regions has always been a hot topic. Why does 74 per cent of private investment and 44 per cent of Government investment go into London - surely that damages the regions? I argue the case that we need London to be the world leader in cultural development, and I find it hard to beat the anti-London drum. London is a powerhouse and the regions rely on it for many reasons. Of course we need the overall UK investment strategy to serve the nation with some level of equity.

Birmingham is no second best, despite its struggle to identify with a confident, clear and forward-thinking brand. The city has a distinctive role in the UK's cultural ecology. I would argue the case (and have my head bitten off by colleagues in other progressive British cities) that Birmingham's success has been to understand the value of very high quality arts and follow that through with aggressive investment in a quality cultural infrastructure. In the case of Birmingham Royal Ballet, the city and Arts Council have provided a remarkable home and economic stability for the company. Ours is not an industry that has historically enjoyed regular economic stability and hence the difficulties in planning ahead with confidence.

The 'Birmingham Story' that Birmingham Royal Ballet now proudly tells harks back in spirit to the inspired entrepreneurs of the Industrial Revolution. The industrial sheds have become studios and a new industry is born here in Birmingham called 'ballet'.

Twenty years ago it was not a twinkle in anyone's eye but today you can train to be a dancer from the age of six, move to a major national ballet school (Elmhurst School for Dance, based in Edgbaston, which operates in association with Birmingham Royal Ballet) at 11 and join BRB, an international ballet company, at 18. It's all here in the city. Combine that with the city's well-respected training institutions for music, acting, stagecraft and design and the picture becomes clear - this is a significant new industry and the economic value to the City has been recognised.

Recognition of the new industry is also visible in the level of corporate responsibility being shown through the investment in the arts by businesses and individuals. Victorian philanthropy left our great cities, including Birmingham, with tremendous legacies - now we look for the philanthropists of the 21st century to endow the future of a very different city.

The 'Birmingham Story' is timely in terms of the national picture. The last 10 years have seen a two-fold step change in the cultural industries. We have enjoyed the greatest increase ever of financial investment in the arts by Government and we are now seeing recognition of the true value to the UK's GDP of the industry with the economic additionality that the Government's investment brings. According to Culture West Midlands, in 2004 10 per cent of the West Midlands workforce was employed in the cultural sector which turned over a staggering pounds 18 billions. Once fully calculated on a national basis it will make interesting reading. The undisputable case for stable investment has been properly proven.

Put culture's economic power alongside the power of the arts to effect social change and finally we might find our industry rather higher up the national agenda than has ever previously been the case, in the regions as well as in London.

THE BIG DEBATE BIRMINGHAM

As the centre piece of this year's New Generation Arts Festival, The Big Debate will explore the health of Britain's regional arts scene and question the perceived cultural hegemony of London.

The event, supported by the NEC Group and The Birmingham Post, is designed to provoke a wide-ranging debate across a broad spectrum of interests, including business, politics and local communities.

Chairing the debate will be Richard Morrison, Chief Culture Critic of The Times; Sir Christopher Frayling, chair of the Arts Council; Prof Germaine Greer, writer academic and broadcaster; Anthony Sargent, general director of The Sage, Gateshead and The Birmingham Post's own arts correspondent Terry Grimley, will be on the panel.

The debate will be held at the ICC in Birmingham on Monday June 18, at 2.30pm. To book a seat and register a question for the panel, visit www.thebigdebatebirmingham.co.uk

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Coppelia has a universal quality - it provides so much to look at and hear to spark the imagination of all ages; Tyrone Singleton, a British dancer of mixed race. Any cultural barriers to his progress have not been obvious.
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 12, 2007
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