Not The Nutcracker! Spellbinding dance straight from the playground

Caroline Cornélis draws on everyday life to make elegant shows for young audiences. In 10:10, three dancers and a drummer recreate break time

Shows for young audiences are frequently set in fantasy and fairytale worlds, but the school playground is children’s daily domain of make-believe. A stretch of tarmac and a knackered climbing frame will host dozens of overlapping adventures, either continued next playtime or forgotten forever.

These mini playground dramas are the inspiration for a wonderfully assured dance production for over-sixes, created by Belgian choreographer Caroline Cornélis. It’s called 10:10, named after a popular time for morning break in European schools. The show begins with a musician sweeping sand to the edges of the stage before resting the brush against a drum kit, picking up a pair of sticks and pounding out a blistering solo. Three dancers appear at the wings, itching to rush on, as if anticipating the school bell. As the drumming accelerates, they storm a stage suddenly flooded with light. Break time begins.

Watch a trailer for 10:10

“This need to play! This release of tension!” Cornélis laughs when we meet to discuss her show at the Objectifs Danse bienniale in Brussels. Cornélis runs Compagnie Nyash, which specialises in dance performances for young children, and she wanted 10:10 to have “the energy of a seven-year-old”.

With a seven-year-old son of her own and a teenage daughter, she has a parent’s-eye view of the playground and is used to testing out shows at home: her son is “my first audience member” and has apparently already decided to be the company’s next director. Cornélis explains with a grin that he had to be removed from watching one of her shows, Stoel, because he was misbehaving so much.

Cornélis, who formed her company in 2006, regularly visits schools with her dancers. Recently, they were invited to disrupt lessons at one establishment, with surprise performances bursting out in the classrooms. Their most recent piece, Close-Up, has been honed in schools and takes place right under the young audience’s noses. “How can we bring dance even closer to young children?” she asks.

10:10 instantly captures the all-consuming enthusiasm that children have for play, as well as how their focus can flip so swiftly from one game to the next. The three dancers – two male, one female, none of them dressed as children – start off with a race. It ends in slo-mo: a pigtail is pulled, a punch is thrown and, as the winner rejoices, the losers lie in a heap. Whoops, tears, frustration and celebration: this is the ultimate playground aesthetic. The show has solos from dancers lost in their own world; duets of trust and competition; group tangles in which one dancer’s toes rest on another’s face. When one of the trio unwraps a sweet, the other two jealously salivate as he performs a zany sugar-rush solo.

We hardly hear any voices: the background score recalls the muffled droning of the adults in the Peanuts animations, with an added jazzy trumpet here and there. 10:10 is every bit as sophisticated as Stoel, which was a revelation at the Edinburgh festival in 2018: a show for the over-threes in which a pair of dancers performed among, on top of and sometimes underneath a stackable cast of 15 junk-shop chairs. Both productions are cool and classy, with a humour that is glinting rather than overwhelming, as it is in much children’s theatre.

Cornélis, genial company with cropped blond hair and a mischievous smile, says they auditioned all the chairs they could find for Stoel, accidentally nabbing one from another show’s rehearsals, and gave each chair its own name. One of the remarkable things about the production was how each of the 15 gained an individual presence among the dancers. “When you look at a chair, you see a body sitting,” says Cornélis.

For financial reasons, Compagnie Nyash’s creations are small-scale, with a cast of two or three. But Cornélis, a former ballerina, longs to stage something mightier with a corps of dancers. “Seven or eight dancers breathing together – that’s a different force,” she says. “That force of movement – that’s the impact I experienced as a four-year-old watching ballet.”

As 10:10 ends in joyful cacophony, with the drum kit bruised and all of that sand spread across the stage, I’m left with two thoughts. First, that in the forthcoming festive season of Nutcrackers and Sleeping Beauties, this is stunningly different children’s dance that deserves the biggest audience. And second, who’s going to tidy up this mess?

10:10 and Stoel are on tour in Europe.


Chris Wiegand

The GuardianTramp

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