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A very happy 21st anniversary to Birmingham Royal Ballet dance ensemble Freefall, a company featuring 10 dancers with learning disabilities. What’s On chats to Lee Fisher and Teresa Fadden, two of the team behind the creation of Freefall back in 2002... 

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s (BRB) Freefall Dance Company is celebrating its 21st birthday with a series of special performances and an exhibition charting its history.

The company is this month showcasing a new work entitled ‘Still Life’ At The Freefall Café. The piece is inspired by former BRB Artistic Director David Bintley’s hugely popular ‘Still Life’ At The Penguin Café - a work which also inspired an early BRB outreach project that in turn led to the formation of Freefall itself more than two decades ago.

Visitors to the Hippodrome can also check out the Freefall 21st anniversary exhibition of photographs, films and testimonies, which is available to view from mid-November until next March.

Freefall features 10 dancers with learning disabilities alongside BRB staff, freelance artists, senior teachers and teaching assistants. The company was formed in 2002 following a series of BRB learning & participatory projects, presented in partnership with Moseley’s Fox Hollies Special School. 
Freefall’s artistic director & co-founder, Lee Fisher, was then a BRB soloist and helped facilitate the projects.

“Fox Hollies was my first experience of a special school and I loved it,” he recalls. “I was blown away by this aesthetic and this joy for dance, the immediacy I was getting because these young people were in front of me - and they were beautiful and stunning.”

After one successful project, Café Atlantic, the decision was made to create a permanent company.

“Café Atlantic sparked the idea of collaborating further, with a view to creating more opportunity and provision,” says Lee. “We were really excited by the idea of what platform we could create to show more of it, to experiment, to introduce ballet a bit more than we’d had the chance to do in other creative productions.”

The timing was also perfect for Fox Hollies, which, together with the neighbouring Queensbridge School, was at the time applying for specialist status as a performing-arts school.

“With BRB as our professional partner, we became the first special school in the country to be given performing-arts status in our own right,” says Fox Hollies’ deputy head teacher, Teresa Fadden, who was part of the team behind the creation of Freefall. 

Of Freefall’s 10 dancers, four are founder members. And over the past two decades, the company has built relationships with 19 schools and three universities, along the way working directly with hundreds of young people.

For Teresa, the dancers gain in numerous ways.

“From the day Freefall was set in motion, it had the ability to offer those young adults an opportunity to have a social group with a purpose and maintain their lifestyle and their health.

“They meet on a Monday evening, and that is their hook: they will be meeting with their friends. And there’s always a performance in the pipeline, so that is their purpose. 

“I never cease to be amazed at the pieces that Lee creates and supports. I watch those young adults with severe learning disabilities able to know exactly what they are doing. They stand in the wings, ready to come on, knowing who should be doing what and when, and keeping their concentration for long periods of time. 

“They are very comfortable around the Hippodrome. It’s their second home and they own the stage when they go on.”

Lee adds: “I think there’s a powerful sense of identifying as a dancer, and a personal and also collective sense of identity. They feel part of Freefall. 

“They’ve also got real pride in building their technique and developing their mastery. We make it quite autonomous in terms of the creation, so that they have choice and control over what they’re doing. And we’ve been very blessed to work with great people in lovely places, so there are some real opportunities.”

Over the past 21 years, Freefall’s impact has been massive. Through performances, online films, workshops and leading education projects, its members have demonstrated not only their love of dancing but also their talent.

This month’s performances feature the current Freefall dancers alongside pupils from Fox Hollies School, Uffculme School in Moseley and Hazel Oak Sixth Form in Shirley, as well as members of All Saints Youth Group in Kings Heath and adults from Reddi Support in Redditch.

At each of these centres, current Freefall dancers have helped facilitate the performances and inspire the performers.

Teresa explains: “Our Freefall dancers at Fox Hollies are two brothers. Their nephew is in the school, and he is one of the dancers in our group, so this is a good way to identify talent and draw it through.”

In all, 60 dancers, aged from 14, will take to the stage in a work set to new music created by Freefall’s pianist & composer, Richard Syner.

Lee promises that audiences are in for a treat. “I want them to come away buzzing and energised, having had a lovely, wonderful, interesting, aesthetically pleasing evening. It will be a great night at the theatre.” 

And Teresa hopes their work will inspire people who see the shows and visit the exhibition.

“I would say to anybody who comes into contact with the anniversary events: Open your mind and look at what a young person with a learning disability can do. Judge them as they should be judged - by the quality of what they do, not by their disability.

“Freefall is a gem in that it gives a small number of young people with a learning disability that opportunity to enrich their lives - and also the lives of others.”

'Still Life' at the Freefall Cafe shows at the Patrick Studio, Birmingham Hippodrome, on Wed 15 & Thursday 16 November. Click here for tickets