The group of lads, larking about in an upstairs studio space at Eden Court in Inverness. You hear the easy camaraderie in the laughter before you see the fun and games that are in fact a warm-up session. Someone presses the play button, the space fills with thrumming, rhythmical music and, in the blink of an eye, the casual body language shape-shifts. Heads up, backs straight, into formation and two by two, and as if unquestioning discipline had been drilled into them from birth, the group marches onstage. This is the beginning of final rehearsals for the Inverness premiere of Lord Of The Flies, a visionary project initiated by award-winning choreographer Matthew Bourne that brings together male dancers from his own New Adventures company with a bunch of local lads in a visceral dance-theatre version of William Golding's timelessly unnerving novel.
For Bourne's own performers, the choreography - by Scott Ambler, a long-time stalwart of Bourne's dance company and creative team - is familiar territory. In recent weeks this project has been successfully staged in Salford, Plymouth and Birmingham. But for the 17 lads, ages ranging from 10 to 23 and hailing from Portree, Forres and Gairloch, as well as the Inverness area, every aspect of this experience is an unknown quantity. That also includes the professional dancers who will be taking on the leading role. They only arrived at the theatre a few hours earlier, but you wouldn't know it from the way they've jigsawed into action with the clutch of talented non-professionals who will hit the stage running, jumping and acting rogue when the show goes live this week.
Briefly flash back, some three years, to a studio space in Govan. It's a nippy day in February 2011 but inside the rehearsal room the mood is one of meltdown as seven male dancers from New Adventures join forces with 15 raw recruits chosen from well over 100 West Dunbartonshire schoolboys. Golding's narrative has reached the point where isolation and the absence of adults - no parents, no teachers enforcing rules of behaviour - has seen anarchy surface. Even without the slicks of war-paint, dishevelled garb and threatening sticks that mark out the tribes on each side of a savage leadership struggle, the raw intensity of the ruck is palpable amid the swarming bodies. The ranks of untutored participants are almost totally unrecognisable - the taller ones, especially, are often hard to distinguish from Bourne's pros. Something intense and transformative has clearly been in process.
Watching that battle commence was Nat McCleary. She'd been a guiding presence on the Lord Of The Flies (LOTF) project ever since the creative learning team at Glasgow's Theatre Royal had joined up the necessary funding and educational partnerships with the Re:Bourne arm of New Adventures. She'd been involved over months with the participating schools, and had got to know the individuals who were selected for the show itself. She was in with the bricks, and on more than one occasion was the mortar that brought the young lads together. Now McCleary is back on board as the project co-ordinator for Scotland, ensuring that this Inverness experience - like subsequent LOTF residencies in Glasgow and Aberdeen - matches up to that original ground-breaking initiative.
"Of course it's different," she says, as a posse of primary school boys chases past, on an energy high that bodes well for unleashing their inner savage on-stage. "Over months, I built up a real awareness of where those boys were coming from, what their context was - and maybe why Lord Of The Flies was more than just a chance to dance. What we did then was new for everyone. Not just the boys. And we had no idea if it would even work..." She laughs. That first-time showing at Glasgow's Theatre Royal in March 2011 proved a game-changer in the field of outreach and community projects. Even as Les Brotherston's set - an outcrop of ascending levels - was being dismantled, other venues all across the UK (and beyond) were clamouring "us next, us next" in emails to Re:Bourne.
"We don't have the same long lead-in time here, or at any of the other locations," continues McCleary. "But we've all learned so much from that initial LOTF and we've built significantly on that. I think our understanding of what it is we want the project to deliver - and how to deliver that - is more honed now.
"And the really big plus is being able to offer Lord Of The Flies to so many more boys all across the country - but still achieve the original high standards without any dilution of the experience, or the impact it has on them or on audiences."
There are, however, particular challenges that come with each new location. McCleary nods. "Boys who have had a rural upbringing definitely have a different frame of reference from the boys we worked with in West Dunbartonshire," she says. "But actually the real challenge is to draw something genuine out of every young person taking part. There's no point - and we're definitely not interested in - imposing any kind of samey-ness on what they do. There's no room for superficiality, or mimicking the others. It's immersive and intense. It's about integrity, connection, giving your all. But what makes it open, universal, is wherever you live, whatever your background, you'll know what it feels like to be afraid - and to pretend you're not. You'll know about rules, and what you think it would be like if suddenly there weren't any rules."
Tom Strang, 17, from Forsinard in Sutherland and 18-year-old Fergus Russell, from Grantown on Spey, are two of the LOTF participants who reckon they have already stepped well outside their comfort zone in preparation for the full-on rehearsals with the professional dancers. Tom is already setting his sights on a career in musical theatre, has just taken his Higher Dance exams at Eden Court and is looking to further training down south. Fergus has no dance background beyond "a bit of break-dancing but that was a while ago..." They're in unison, however, when it comes to LOTF. "Never experienced anything like it" sums it up so far.
Tom mulls over how "the stage can actually feel claustrophobic. You have all these little boys milling about, and you're having to watch out for them - remember where you need to be, get there without messing up or falling over the edge of the set. And now, with the lead dancers as well, it means being careful not to mask them. It's a taste of how a proper, professional Matthew Bourne production feels like - and it's something that, living in the Highlands, I never ever thought I'd have the opportunity to be a part of."
If Fergus hasn't got any concrete ambitions to be a dancer - he murmurs about being interested in the arts, however - for him the physicality of the workshops has got more than his body moving.
"You really have to think about who you are onstage, and not just act that person but be that person. Visualise everything as that person," he says. "We've been given names, but we've been allowed to create a personality and a back-story ourselves. The challenge is to sustain that character all the time. I thought it would be dance, but it's acting as well. And so much more. I'm so grateful my family made me audition, and supported me coming here. Like Tom, I never imagined anything like this on my own doorstep - well not quite, but worth travelling for!"
For Colin Marr, Eden Court's hugely pro-active chief executive, this project ticks some boxes he's had on his wish-list for ages. "We've never been able to bring in any of Matthew Bourne's work," he says. "Now we can offer our audiences a show that isn't just thrilling in itself, but which has local youngsters positively involved, and not in any tokenistic way. We've been able to bring together boys from all over Highland region, give them the exact same opportunity that inner city youngsters in Salford, Birmingham - and Glasgow and Aberdeen - can engage with. We already are the 'hub' for all kinds of creative activity in the region. But it's great to feel that this project makes us part of a nationwide community as well."
Lord Of The Flies is at Eden Court, Inverness from May 28-31. The Glasgow LOTF project is at the King's Theatre from June 11-14, and the Aberdeen LOTF is at His Majesty's Theatre from August 27-30, www.new-adventures.net