VULNERABLE young people, including unaccompanied refugees and children in care, are working with one of the UK’s top dance companies on a project boosting self esteem and life skills.

Dance United Yorkshire (DUY), a Bradford-based charity, delivers dance and social inclusion programmes for young people aged 13-19. Among them are those who are NEET (not in education, employment or training), have behavioural issues and/or are excluded from school, youth offenders, have mental health problems, are self-harming and at risk of sexual exploitation.

Now DUY has teamed up with New Adventures on an innovative project taking place in Bradford. New Adventures, founded by acclaimed choreographer/director Sir Matthew Bourne, produces vibrant dance shows including Edward Scissorhands, The Red Shoes and Swan Lake which add contemporary twists and film references to classical ballet, making dance more accessible to wider audiences.

New Adventures' Civil Blood project is inspired by the company’s contemporary production of Romeo and Juliet, which came to Bradford’s Alhambra theatre earlier this year. Led by New Adventures Resident Artist Paul Smethurst, and longstanding company member Sam Archer, the creative residency in Bradford - one of only two in the UK - will culminate in a performance on Thursday at the Riley Theatre, based at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, in Leeds.

Civil Blood is inspired by the main themes in Romeo and Juliet - young people made to suppress their emotions and conflict against authority. “These themes resonate strongly with young people who are marginalised, hard to reach or living in challenging circumstances,” says Paul. “Dance United Yorkshire has such expertise in working with this demographic. "We already have strong links with Bradford, having brought many New Adventures productions to the Alhambra, and now we’re bringing our artistic style and vision to this dance training.”

Dance helps with confidence, communication, discipline, emotional resilience, social re-integration - all valuable life skills. Paul says the Civil Blood project highlights the power of dance to have a “long-lasting impact on the lives of these young people”.

“Dance can be a transformative thing. It can change lives. When you witness how much these young people are getting out of this, it’s a huge thing for them," he says. "Being made to feel important is something they may have never experienced before. Everyone who completes the project gets a qualification.

“The kids come every day, we don’t force them. We treat them like a company; we start the day with a class, dance exercises, warm-up and games, helping them to get focussed. The dance piece we’ve designed is a prequel to Romeo and Juliet, exploring life outside the dystopian institution. We’ve been discussing big issues raised in the dance.

“We’ve taken them to the Riley Theatre, where they’ll be performing, and we’re taking them to see New Adventures’ Romeo and Juliet in Nottingham.”

Adds Paul: “Some kids we’re working with have real natural talent. I’ll be signposting them to other organisations.”

Helen Linsell, Artistic Director of DUY, said: "We've got 22 young people working on this project, which ends with a live performance for family, friends and the wider public. Participants have been referred to us by Bradford schools, Leaving Care and agencies helping unaccompanied asylum-seekers. Most are from a non-dance background.

"With our expertise in working with hard to reach young people, and New Adventures' expertise in choreography and style, we're creating a piece in response to the themes in Matthew Bourne's Romeo and Juliet. They've been here with us for five weeks. It's a fantastic project, based on mutual respect, taking on board how we each work. It's a really great partnership."

Based at Kala Sangam Arts Centre, DUY delivers dance courses in a structured setting, led by dance tutors and support staff. Participants attend a course lasting several weeks, and adhere to rules. “It’s strict, but for a good reason," says Helen. "They often walk in and say: ‘It’s worse than school’. They’re not allowed mobiles, they eat what we give them, they’re supervised, they wear Dance United T-shirts. They have to stay focussed and get on with people they don’t know.

"It’s rigid but it’s creative - every day they go that bit further and build more self-esteem. Over time they discover new potential; they learn how to communicate and co-operate with different people, they learn to stand up tall and make eye contact. It’s incredibly rewarding to see their journey."

Adds Helen: “Some of those taking part pursue dance at college. Some have gone into professional careers. But it’s not about turning them into dancers. It’s about helping them with things like controlling anger and problem-solving, building skills to manage their behaviour."

* The Romeo and Juliet performance is at the Riley Theatre, Northern School of Contemporary Dance, Leeds, on Thursday. For tickets call (0113) 219 3000.

Emma Clayton