Gerard Veltre, the founder and artistic director of Phunctional, the arts company that helped devise the piece, explains the approach they took.
“There’s no way to get these young people beyond the walls,” says Veltre. “And we were like, ‘well how do we do this?’.
“And we thought, well what about if we take in five professional dancers and those professional dancers do what the young people say and the young people choreograph and direct and make the show instead of middle-aged white males who are the majority of choreographers in our society?”
Earlier this year, Phunctional visited Frank Baxter and the Reiby Youth Justice Centre at Airds twice weekly for six weeks. They worked with young people aged between 11 and 19 helping them express their feelings and talk about their experiences through dance.
But before they could start working with the youngsters, they had to gain their trust.
“You have to prove yourself,” says Veltre. “You have to have something to give. And I think the thing that we have to give is our skill.
“The young people saw value in what we were doing. Also, I found that over the years that if you go in try to teach dance, you might get anywhere between 15 and 45 minutes and then they’re done. But if you give them this opportunity where they’re in charge and they’re telling the dancers what to do, 45 minutes isn’t nearly long enough.”
The resulting work is, says Veltre, both powerful and poetic and communicates the frustrations of the young people and, in many cases, their desire to reconnect with their original traditional cultural roots.
“It became a project that gave voice to these young people who are voiceless in our society,” says Veltre. “They get told what to do by the government and they get very little opportunity to say what they want and what their needs are because the law has decided what happens to them.”
The show has already played to packed audiences at Redfern Community Centre, where many of those attending had direct family experience of incarceration.
And now bringing the work to such a celebrated venue is giving everyone involved a much-needed boost.
“It’s such a magical experience to be able to say, as a young person, ‘Yeah, I made a show that was performed at the Opera House’,” says Veltre.
Beyond the Walls is at the Sydney Opera House Studio on December 12 at 7pm.
Nick Galvin is Arts Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald