In 2011, Rosie Dennis, an Australian performer, writer, and curator, brought a group of international artists to Minto, a high-crime, low-income Sydney suburb. This decision gave birth to the cultural celebration MINTO:LIVE—and shook the artists’ conceptions of theater. Families danced through the streets, a textile designer took up residency at the post office, and schoolchildren created a watering hole for fantastical creatures. We asked Dennis what it was like to let contemporary dance, visual art, and performance loose in the streets.
Makeshift: Why Minto?
RD: Minto was built on the American model of social housing—putting people of low socioeconomic status together in poor accommodation where your indoor space is outdoors and your personal business is everyone’s business. Minto had something like 80 percent social housing. It gets such a bad rap: all the lead stories are about shootings or drugs or things getting set on fire. But there’s more to this suburb. I wanted to show a different side of it.
How did Minto residents feel about being involved in a contemporary art festival?
Minto had no contemporary art or theatre. We did a free show at the Campbelltown Arts Centre, and at the end of every performance, people just wanted to stand around and talk about it. One day, someone came up to me and said, “The next thing you do here, Rosie, I want to do it with you.”
Was it risky to assume that the community would participate?
For sure. Recruiting the families for Streetdance [a neighborhood portrait presented through contemporary dance] was a challenge. One day I was out knocking on doors and a Bangladeshi woman invited me in for a glass of Fanta. She asked who from the Bangladeshi community was dancing. I told her nobody was, and she said, “Give me a week, and I will find a family who will do this for you. We have to be part of this.” When things like that happen, you know it’s going to be okay.
What was the experience like for the artists?
As an artist, you’re constantly working out a language to describe what you’re doing. The artists who worked on MINTO:LIVE made their work in public; they had people asking them what they were doing all the time. And it’s cyclical because the work is affected by how the local people interpret what you’re saying.
Then MINTO:LIVE got picked up by the Sydney Festival.
That changed it. The festival audience, who were already arts-lovers, travelled 50 kilometers from Sydney to come to Minto—this suburb—for the shows. The audience was a great mix of people from the art world and people from the neighborhood who had never seen anything like it before. It was an unbelievably fantastic opportunity for conversations that would never happen.
So bridging two communities, as well as celebrating Minto?
Yeah, I always think of that as the highlight. This one woman was a marshall (we had about 40 residents helping people along the one-kilometer festival route through the streets) and had never seen any contemporary theatre before. By the opening night, she was telling people at Streetdance, “Get to the front. This is an amazing dance and you’re not going to want to miss it!” When she said that, I realized that MINTO:LIVE had done what it needed to do.