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Susan Elkin: It’s time for children’s shows to stop spelling everything out

English National Ballet students in My First Ballet: Swan Lake. Photo: Laurent Liotardo English National Ballet students in My First Ballet: Swan Lake. Photo: Laurent Liotardo
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In presenting a dance classic to pre-schoolers, how far should it be simplified and changed to suit the audience?

I’m a great admirer of English National Ballet’s My First Ballet series. For several years, they have toured an annual version of a classical ballet for children over three years old. It is danced by English National Ballet School students, for whom this is excellent professional work experience, and runs for less than an hour.

This year’s show is My First Ballet: Swan Lake, which tours until May 21 and will attract huge numbers of small girls – I worry about the low number of boys every year. But the initiative is, in principle, a fine one.

There is one major problem with these shows: they over-simplify the work by crassly adding words. An actor, sometimes one of the dancers, narrates the story from the stage. Sometimes an existing character will speak; at other times, it can be a specially created role.

Why is there an assumption that children must have verbal explanation to understand a spectacle? Ballet exists to tell stories through music and movement. Choreographers know how to indicate, for example, that two characters are arguing or that someone is knocking on a door without a clumsy narrator to spell it out.

The addition of words suggests that we can’t trust dance to communicate to these audiences without assistance, an odd attitude for a ballet company.

The truth is that we underestimate what children are capable of and what they can understand – and the performing arts are as guilty as the rest of the society.

I see quite a lot of theatre for young children at which the age guidance levels are set too high because producers simply don’t recognise this.

Length is a critical factor obviously. Concentration spans tend to be short in the very young and 45 minutes or so works well. But the material during that time does not need to be overly dumbed down.

I once saw an almost wordless, multi-sensory show that used lots of torn paper and was accompanied by cello music. It captivated every toddler present.

Alongside its wonderful work with young people who have special needs, Oily Cart has virtually created a new art form by developing shows that respect young children’s imaginative ability. It doesn’t bluntly and patronisingly try to spell everything out.

Hush-A-Bye review at Arts Depot, London – ‘magical’

TS Eliot said that poetry can communicate before it is understood and exactly the same goes for performing arts. Young children do not need to have everything explained, broken down and demystified to enjoy and learn from a show they have seen.

We, as an industry, need to focus more on what young children can do rather than fretting about what we think (often wrongly) they can’t. We also need to allow the work we’re presenting to spin its own magic – English National Ballet, please take note.

My First Ballet: Swan Lake is on tour until May 6 is on tour until May 6

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