Monday, 18 October 2010

Good bye and thanks for all the Fish. Northern Ballet says farewell to its home of twelve years.

Like the dolphins in the Hitchhikers’ Guide, the ballet suddenly left our world: our world at the West Park Centre, where for over a decade the old gyms from the former school echoed to the sounds of Tchaikovsky and Delibes. Looking across the playground from the back entrance to the building we used to watch the dancers leaping across the floor of the old gym; to our left was the compound for their truck to park in; and of course, every so often a big team of roadies trundling in and out with boxes and boxes and crates of scenery and costumes. “Alright mate, how’s it going?” intermingling with, “Darling, Mwaa!” – an air kiss on each cheek.

In any one week at West Park, you could bump into a little gaggle of 10 year-olds in tutus with their hair brushed tight back. And their parents: their mums, sitting round, on the recycled chairs that Gordon brought to the Centre and Ray placed for them to hang out on.

In this week there might be a Town Hall rehearsal for the choir, and then hundreds of primary school children will suddenly descend upon the Centre. Thankfully there’s loads of toilets, including disabled ones; The West Park Centre braces itself and embraces all. Talking of the disabled, the Gordon Parry Centre is situated at end of the building with its purpose-built sound and light room. This caters for children and adults with all, and I mean all types of Special Needs.

Children with Special Educational Needs often need specialised transport. The old West Park School playground is big and it is now a car park, marked out for the cars and vans. There’s wheelchair access into the centre and a wheelchair lift from one floor to another.

The Travellers’ Education Unit is based at West Park; as is the National Union of Teachers, the Irish Arts Group, Musical Arc, Educational Welfare, Blah Bah Blah [theatre group] and several others. Some of them come and go, some stay; the Music Service: Leeds ArtForms has been here for over 20 years now, and the spacious layout of the building means that many ensembles can practise at the same time, on the same night.

Leeds Youth Opera rehearses here; Opera North books the hall on the regular basis. When you just call in to check your computer or pick up some glocks, or call in for one of the endless meetings, it’s a fabulous atmosphere, and it’s so good to hear real live music. Carole runs the cafĂ© here; there’s a social area where school staff on courses, at meetings, collecting instruments and the rest can bump into each other.

City of Leeds Youth Music [CLYM] hosts most of its citywide youth ensembles here. Jazz-rock, brass, woodwind, recorder, percussion groups happen here. And when they’ve learnt their tunes, off they go out gigging – to Leeds Town Hall, Civic Hall, halls in France, in Spain, in South Africa. Oh yes, the Leeds Youth Jazz-Rock Orchestra - they’re that good!

Other bands, such as the central steelband and the senior choir rehearse nearer to the city centre, but they are part of the Music Service and will come up for concerts at West Park whenever the occasion demands – such as when the Leeds Silver Steel Sparrows were rehearsing for its debut at the Royal Albert Hall.

It being an old school, the West Park Centre, built in the 1950s, and money always being tight, it’s not perfect. But life is not perfect, and maybe it’s all the better for that. The children we teach don’t call in from their ivory towers for a spot of double reed. The artists of the past, honing their skills starved in garrets, not penthouses.

Obviously, the Ballet needed to move on, and I’m glad they have their new premises, but for twelve years, when they were homeless, and for a nominal rent, the West Park Centre gave them a home. Press coverage has made them look ungrateful, but I think that that's very unlikely.

The old school buildings of Leeds have a crucial part to play in today's education and in the arts. The West Park Centre, Royal Park School, Hillside School, Harehills Middle School [Shine]- these are school buildings from the past, who are redolent with history but who can still look after today's children, whenever the need arises.

So it's thank you for all the fish, and who's next?

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