Pirouettes and pliés are being used to break boundaries in a new initiative run by the Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB) Company.

Best known for its dynamic dancers and eclectic repertoire of dance moves, RNZB has chosen to put accessibility and inclusion at the forefront of its latest project run in partnership with the Department of Corrections.

Three of RNZB's artistic staff have decided to put aside the national and international stages for the next six weeks and spend their time teaching prisoners at Arohata Women's Prison in Wellington.

Dance educator Pagan Dorgan, dancer Laura Saxon Jones and education and community manager Pascale Parenteau held the first of six workshops last week in response to an invitation from Corrections to create a dance project with a group of prisoners to be presented at a Christmas fundraising event at the end of the year.

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Parenteau said the initiative fits perfectly with the company's primary goal of making dance accessible to all New Zealanders.

"It was actually very timely because for some time the education team for RNZB have been working on developing an Accessibility Commitment Policy," she said.

As part of that policy the company have run three other projects; the first sign-language interpreted guided tour of the St James Theatre, a sensory-friendly performance for children and adults with autism and special needs, and NZ's first audio-described ballet performance for visually impaired children and adults.

Royal New Zealand Ballet dance educator Pagan Dorgan said the project aims to build confidence and body awareness. Photo / Supplied
Royal New Zealand Ballet dance educator Pagan Dorgan said the project aims to build confidence and body awareness. Photo / Supplied

The Arohata Prison project was made possible via a grant from the Wellington Community Trust and will culminate in performances for fellow prisoners, family members, staff and invited guests.

"This was a first for RNZB and for me it was my first time in a prison," Parenteau said.

"I didn't' know what to expect and I wanted to react accordingly, but at the same time they are people like you and I so if you respect every individual for who they are, then they respect you."

She said the project aims to enhance prisoners' confidence, communications skills and ability to work with others.

"Whatever we do, it has to be tailor-made to the needs of these women because we are not doing it for us, we are doing it for them.

"When I was setting the programme up I was told that a lot of the women come from broken or disheartening homes and backgrounds, which means they would have never experienced participating in a high-profile training environment, so this is a bit of a boost for them.

"I think they have been very courageous to put their hand up and have a go, but I think the freedom of expression that it allows them is going to be very beneficial."

Dance educator Pagan Dorgan was excited to take on the challenge, having previously run a similar initiative with male prisoners in the UK.

"The idea is to build up a bit of confidence and some body awareness. My idea of dance is it should be positive, even the bits you struggle with or find hard," she said.

Dorgan said the project is run in two phases; six weeks of workshops leading up to the Christmas production, and then further sessions next year to learn specific RNZB repertoire.

"Last week was our first session so it was a little bit of everyone getting to know each other and we also did an aerobics or gym type warm-up," she said.

"We then went through some basic dance movements that were a mixture of jazz, contemporary and Latin."

She said the 15 women involved in the class took to it with a positive attitude.

"It is like any class that I teach; you have some people that are naturally more confident and some people that are naturally more physically aware, and obviously people who are insecure and not confident.

"There was no resistance at all and there was a nice, positive atmosphere."

Participants in the project said the experience gave them hope and inspiration, provided a chance to grow as individuals, and made them appreciate life outside of prison walls.

Later on in the sessions, the women will also have the chance to make costumes for their performance and participate in a stage make-up session.

Parenteau said the project was set up as a one-off but she is hoping to get further funding to expand the classes.

"It aligns with the main mission and the goal of the education department so if we have the resources I would love to see how we can develop it," she said.

"I am also hoping other national companies or organisations will get inspired by what we are doing and start thinking about what they can do to help."