Lessons in Sweetieland: Matthew Bourne's old primary school dance his Nutcracker!

12 March 2019

Walthamstow’s Roger Ascham school has a superstar ex-pupil: Matthew Bourne. Now his company is putting on a show with the students – almost 500 of them

Article taken from The Guardian by Chris Wiegand as featured here

Roger Ascham Dancers in Residence in Rehearsals
Roger Ascham Dancers in Residence in Rehearsals Credit: Alicia Clarke

It looks, at first glance, like a regular rehearsal for a school play. A line of primary students march around the hall brandishing handmade props, feet stomping and pigtails swinging. But this school in Walthamstow, east London, has a superstar alumnus and all the pupils – almost 500 of them – have been enlisted for his latest gala production.

Matthew Bourne, the British choreographer who was knighted in 2016 and is about to receive a special Olivier award for his achievements in dance, attended Roger Ascham primary school in the 1960s. He has returned to his old patch to prepare a one-off performance this Friday. A new version of his 1992 classic Nutcracker! will be performed by the pupils – and two teachers – as part of this year’s London Borough of Culture celebrations in Waltham Forest.

Bourne, best known for reimagining Swan Lake by replacing the female corps de ballet with a male ensemble, has happy memories of Roger Ascham. Born in Hackney, he moved to Walthamstow aged six. His father worked for Thames Water and his mother worked part-time for the local council; both were also youth workers. Bourne and his brother grew up in a rented house in nearby Douglas Avenue. “There was no drama class as such,” says Bourne of the school. “But I was so grateful to them for letting me do what I clearly wanted to do.” Aged eight, he put on his own versions of Cinderella – “All the boys played girls and all the girls played boys” – and Mary Poppins in the school hall. His love of both stories endured. In 2017, Bourne’s Cinderella, set during the second world war, was a hit at Sadler’s Wells; his celebrated version of Mary Poppins is back in the West End later this year.

Bourne says that staging this 45-minute Nutcracker! will give the students a “sense of unity” and the feeling that they’ve “conquered something together”. Certainly, the whole school is buzzing. In rehearsals, class 1B (aged 6-7) are busy running on the spot, then practising robot poses, jerking their bodies while trying to keep straight faces. One student gets a high-five from Gavin Eden, part of a small team from Bourne’s company, New Adventures, who have been based at the school for six weeks. “Wiggle like you’ve got no muscles,” one group are told by Kerry Biggin, who performed in Bourne’s professional version of Nutcracker! as Clara.

As the children assemble a Nutcracker soldier puppet, brandishing body parts on sticks, I step out to meet some of the sixth-year students. “It’s a big opportunity,” says Mila. “We’re working with people who are really top-class.” Yasmina thinks it’s great that “everyone gets to have a part” while Thevhan says he wasn’t sure what to make of it at first. “And then I started to like it,” he says, busting out some moves as he talks: “Yeah, I get this, yeah!” Emily, from year 5, proudly says: “I’m one of the choreographers” and Mila explains the concept: “There are six storytellers who help tell the story.” Yasmina explains: “The storytellers get sucked into the book.” Thevhan says that in dance “you use your body to replace the words”. Emily reflects: “It’s quite hard!”

The project was designed to change the model of an “artist in residence” so that it’s not about an artist creating a solo work reflecting on their individual experiences. Instead, it’s a collaboration – and the process is as important as the final production.

Roger Ascham Dancers in Residence in Rehearsals
Roger Ascham Dancers in Residence in Rehearsals Credit: Alicia Clarke

Dancer Michela Meazza – who played Princess Sugar in Nutcracker! – says this new version relocates the story from an orphanage to a Victorian school. This means the children “can start thinking about the differences between their schools and Victorian times”. When the action shifts to Sweetieland, the show’s appeal for the students is self-explanatory. “They become snowflakes, there are chocolate rivers,” explains Meazza. “We can play a lot with their imagination.”

Biggin believes the landscape has changed for dance education since she was a child: “We had a ‘music and movement’ class. The teacher would bring in a tape recorder and press play. The tape told you what to do, like ‘Run! Stop!’” A PE teacher who was passionate about dance recognised her talent and encouraged her to pursue it in her spare time. Eden, 34, remembers his school as “absolutely not supportive of me, as a boy, dancing. For the end of year show they would not encourage me to dance, which was a shame.”

New Adventures hope the project will encourage pupils to think of dance as a career option. There are many benefits of dance, they say, include confidence building, a sense of empowerment and accountability. Meazza says that Bourne’s professional productions are always based on individuals’ contributions. “Everyone brings something to the creation of the material, to the choreography, the ideas, the story. The same approach has been used with the children. “We teach them a little bit from the show but it’s very important that they create their own movement and we include that in the piece. So there is a sense of ownership. They can feel: ‘I’ve created this and I’m performing it. And some of my friends are performing my movement.’”

In the hall, I see the children practise the art of taking a final bow. But the company is also helping them to explore techniques for handling pre-show jitters, including breathing techniques and ways to focus, which will prove to be transferable skills.

The performance takes place at Walthamstow Assembly Hall on Friday and is for family and friends only. Entry is free, which wasn’t the case for the shows Bourne staged at home as a child. “I advertised them,” he remembers with a laugh. “You’d get a free cup of tea and a biscuit with your ticket.”

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