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Hip to be square

Gathering Ground celebrates the children and community of the Block. Stephen Dunne reports in the Sydney Morning Herald of May 23, 2008.

It's the Block in Redfern and outside the Community Centre about 12 kids aged eight to 15 are going aerial with harnesses, ropes and silk loops, swinging and swaying and climbing high.

Upstairs, inside the centre, more young people practise modelling, walking to the beat, and posing. The girls tend towards hip thrusts and flicks, while the boys lean back with arms folded, hip-hop style. Next door, a 15-strong choir rehearses Christine Anu's My Island Home, slow and plaintive, with massed voices and an acoustic guitar.

These are some of the preparations for Gathering Ground, a site-specific collaboration between PACT and the Redfern Community Centre, where about 40 young Aboriginal people from the Block and its environs work with established artists and physical theatre companies such as ERTH and Legs On The Wall.

Gathering Ground is a performance event exploring the power of community, friendship and love. Developed and performed by young people living in and around the Block, it continues on from the successful 2006 event, which was focused on history, ceremony and protest. Audiences are led through various specific sites, before gathering for the finale in the park outside the Community Centre.

When asked why she's doing it, Louise Winters, 13, says it's fun.

"It's freaky at the start because everyone knows you and stuff, because it's just like your family and friends give you confidence for doing stuff that you want to do," she says. "It makes you feel a lot better."

Willurei Kirkbright is a young artist who participated in the first Gathering Ground in 2006. She is back for this event, making two installations - one on the wall of an abandoned terrace, the other in the soon-to-re-open Murraweena preschool.

"I'm basically doing it for the kids, giving them and this community a voice," Kirkbright says. "We have some really creative and really talented kids. We want to show all the positive things about Redfern - we have a really strong sense of family here; we have a strong sense of community - and to show that this isn't all a negative place and it's a real important part of our society and our culture."

For co-directors Karen Therese and Frederick Copperwaite and the producer and the centre's cultural development officer Lily Shearer, the process of Gathering Ground is much more important than the result.

"It's to develop not only theatre skills and physical skills for these kids but it's about giving them skills of commitment, seeing things through, starting things and finishing them," Shearer says. "If they find a little niche there, that's a bonus, and if they can develop that outside, that's an extra bonus."

Several participants from the previous Gathering Ground have gone on to get scholarships or TV work.

"Young people don't have much of a voice in our society in general, let alone in the Aboriginal community," Shearer says. "Gathering Ground is about them being proud of who they are and where they come from and it's about them saying, and they'll tell you straight out, they don't want the junkies on the Block. They don't want the alcoholics on the Block. It's about changing lifestyle."

It's also about changing perceptions of one of Sydney's most derided and stereotyped communities. Copperwaite says the Block will be adorned with theatrical lighting and signs for Gathering Ground but the area won't be dressed up or "disguised".

"It's really important that [people] see the state of the buildings and, when they walk around the streets, that they see the environment as it is."

Therese says everyone is welcome at the event's three free showings and the public will be led through the event by tour guides.

“Last time it clearly said on the poster that you had to meet opposite Redfern train station," Therese says. "And I walked up and it was 7.30pm and I thought, 'Oh, there's no one here.' Then I looked across the road and there's all these white people looking scared on the other side, crowding Redfern Station and looking at me. And I'm like, 'Over here guys! It's OK!'"

Shearer says: "You have to come and see the show to get the messages because you'll hear it in the lyrics that the kids have written for the songs. You'll see it in their bodies, the way they perform, the proudness. You'll see it in the parents and the grandparents. Don't believe in stereotypes in the media. Come down and see it for yourselves!"


Thursday and May 30-31, audiences meet opposite Redfern Station at 7.30pm, free, bookings

Photo: It's time to celebrate ... Kiarna Dungay (with peace sign) and Candace Trindall beside her.