Ballet Hoo!, 2006-2007

It is rare for a TV company and an organisation dedicated to personal development training to approach a ballet company to make a prime-time television programme about a project, yet to be devised. Roy Ackermann of Diverse Productions and Neil Wragg, CEO of Youth at Risk, approached Birmingham Royall Ballet to partner them in the making of a television documentary involving a programme of personal development and ballet with a group of disadvantaged young people.

It was not to be an arts 'fly on the wall' documentary, but filming a group of young people involved in 'Leaps and Bounds' over 18 months and witnessing the changes to their lives. Jan Younghusband of Channel 4 agreed to commission four television programmes, three of 60 minutes and one of 90 minutes, to document the project. The four programmes reached 4.5 million people.

The Black Country Partnership of Dudley MBC, Sandwell and Wolverhampton agreed in principle to the project following a presentation to them by Youth at Risk. The Chief Executive of Dudley briefed the Chief Executive of Birmingham City Council (BCC) and Birmingham Royal Ballet introduced Youth at Risk to senior managers from BCC. In October 2004 the four local authorities agreed to participate in the project and that it should be led by Dudley MBC. These partners had never worked together before.

There was no blueprint for the project; it was designed for young people aged 15-20 years who were considered to be disadvantaged and/or 'at risk'. The project was to mix a one-off personal development training programme with preparation and training for a full-length ballet performance in which the young people would perform alongside the dancers of Birmingham Royal Ballet. It would last for around 18 months. At the outset the definition of disadvantage was never agreed by the partners, which allowed for individual interpretation by the local authorities when selecting the young people.

The young people were referred from a number of sources: Connexions, Looked After (ESS and 16+), Youth Offending Services, PRU's, Barnados, Youth Service, individual schools' 'at risk' pupils, including excluded pupils, at risk of exclusion, suspended, 'tagged' young people, whose with mild autism, those in hostels, teenage mothers, and young people with deep-seated personal issues, health issues such as bulimia and poor home backgrounds.

Most of the young people selected had never taken ballet classes although some were studying performing arts or dance at GCSE, some had never performed on a stage and most had never worked with a professional dancer or attended a theatre to see a ballet.

There were two phases to Leaps and Bounds: Phase 1 began with recruitment, enrolment, personal development training and a follow-through programme lasting from March 2005 until March 2006. At the beginning of Phase 2 the young people would be given the choice of continuing with the project. It was to be an intensive period of work leading to the performance of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, originally choreographed by Sir Kenneth MacMillan, with Birmingham Royal Ballet dancers and the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, to take place on 28 September 2006 at Birmingham Hippodrome before an audience of 1,785 people.

The project's ambition was to recruit, train and develop 300 young people supported by 300 volunteer life coaches. Approximately 300 young people were recruited. 220 turned up for the Youth Intensive Training Courses, a four-day training programme led by the charity Youth at Risk. Following this training, 150 committed themselves to a journey of personal discovery, dance and related arts. 120 completed the first part of this journey in March 2006.

85 young people signed up to Phase 2, 62 made it to the performance in September 2006 whether on stage or backstage. 70 volunteer life coaches supported the young people in Phase 1, and 30 of them continued their commitment in Phase 2. 15 life coaches were actively involved with the final performance. Around 30 other professionals gave their services through the 18 months of the project. The number of young people involved in Phase 2 exceeded all expectations.

At enrolment, all the young people were required to devise three life goals for themselves: one had to be about a healthier lifestyle. They would try to achieve these goals during the project. They had a dedicated life coach who would help in achieving their goals.

The question posed by the project and the partners was:

'Can ballet combined with personal development transform young people's lives?'

The project was remarkable for its vision, complexity, length, and levels of risk. What can be said is that in some way it changed the lives of all of those who were closely involved in the project and even some who watched from a distance.

'...It resulted in one of the best examples of EVENT THEATRE I have ever experienced in my 16 years of professional dance/arts development career.' Michelle Bould, Sandwell Youth Coordinator

'It was one of the best experiences of my career watching the young people perform; truly magical.' Beki Martin, Youth at Risk staff member

David Bintley summed up the feelings of all those involved in the project when he addressed the audience at the end of the perfomance of Romeo and Juliet. The young people had been on an extraordinary journey over 18 months and on that night they received a long, standing ovation. Many of the audience were in tears and others cheered wildly. It was a night never to be forgotten by the parents and friends and followers of Birmingham Royal Ballet who witnessed the event.

'As I've watched everybody in Birmingham Royal Ballet, from the sidelines, I've seen their frustration. I've seen their anger, I've seen their rage, I've seen their resignation, I have seen their despair. I've also seen their excitement, I've seen their joy, I've seen their elation, I've seen their tears, because like everybody, this project has changed everybody's lives. Ballet Hoo! has changed our lives.

'They've [the young people] made an extraordinary journey over the past 18 months, and some of them from unimaginable positions of departure, and they have danced Romeo and Juliet. I'd like to paraphrase one of the members of our cast here. His name is Andy, and he was Friar Lawrence tonight. Tonight these people have shown you - they've shown us, and they've shown themselves, and in two weeks time they will show the nation - that they are not nobodies, they are somebodies.' David Bintley, Director, Birmingham Royal Ballet

Find out more about Ballet Hoo! here.

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