|Excelsior, L-R Benjamin Creek, Benjamin Maza, Joshua Thaiday, Leonard Hunter Donahue|
photo Mick Roberts
I have been listening to recordings of the Dana Waranara Convergence, held late last year at Brisbane's Judith Wright Centre. I am very fortunate to be afforded the luxury of adequate time and distance to revisit this crucial event with fresh ears because I was not an outsider able to assess the experience from an objective perspective. Instead I was participating with all the passion and personal investment that makes one prone to bias. Initially my personal professional ambition and an impatience for a more substantial presence for Indigenous dance on the Western mainstage as a whole, caused me to momentarily lose sight of the rare opportunity this event afforded us.
With the advantage of hindsight I was able to reflect on fundamental differences between the National Dance Forum (NDF) held in Melbourne earlier in the year and Dana Waranara. The NDF proved to be a very academic appraisal of the state of dance, with a primary focus on where and how works are seeded and developed and the means by which we engage with them and the methodology for critical discourse. The BlakDance summit and subsequent Dana Waranara Convergence, however, examined dance as the pursuit of a way of being in the world, and arts practices as an intrinsic extension of a life practice.
Like most of the invited artists, from all points of the continent, I got up at the crack of dawn to catch the almost ‘red eye’ to Brisbane. I greeted and was greeted in turn by my extended dance family, some of us actual countrymen, but most of us sharing a familiarity reserved for blood kin because we are each (and in some cases self-appointed) cultural custodians. We act as each other’s sounding boards and gatekeepers, policing protocols, working out how to work ‘right way,’ in accordance with the knowledge passed down by those who came before us and to ensure that same knowledge is available for those who follow.
It’s day two and Uncle Des Sandy takes the floor. He is a local man, a Goori. After acknowledging the land in which we are meeting, he proceeds to name the clans of the neighbouring countries and those of the outlying terrains. He continues, methodically spiralling outwards, calling language groups with the precision of Fibonacci. From there he invites each and every one of us to share our ancestral origins, to establish our geographical place in relation to our transplanted selves and to each other. This is important.
Monica Stevens, Chair of BlakDance, delivers her second opening address in two days. She differentiates the forthcoming Dana Waranara proceedings from those of the previous day. The BlakDance Summit's purpose was to identify opportunities for growth and the current challenges hindering the prosperity of the Indigenous dance sector, with which to make a compelling case for a Blakdance forum in 2016. The main objective of Dana Waranarana was to initiate network relationships between presenters, producers and artists by providing a space to unpack what it means to be an Indigenous dance artist in a national and international context and to find ways in which partnerships might be forged.
Monica's oratory was impassioned and articulate; she talked business while never losing connection with her heritage, peppering her speech with personal anecdotes and accompanying photos referencing her homelands, thus integrating her cutural knowledge. She was both awe-inspiring and self-effacing with a ready wit and sense of humour that was to inform the event. Monica’s candour demonstrated how she meant for us move forward when time is of the essence, both urgent and immediate and yet simultaneously timeless; time honoured, timely.
Executive Producer Merindah Donnelly gave a chronological account of BlakDance to date, tracing its history from the initial Creating Pathways forum held in Canberra 10 years prior, before it morphed into the Treading the Pathways initiative, aimed at targeting specific mid-career artists in order to expand the Indigenous choreographic landscape. Then it was re-branded as an advocacy body, BlakDance, under the leadership of Marilyn Miller, and then finally arrived at the present. Merindah then invited Gundangarra dancer/choreographer Ian Colless to supply an historical overview of Indigenous dance.
Ian outlined a contemporary dance history and its key players, some of whom were in the room. This resulted in a gentle prompting by the pioneers when details grew fuzzy or were erroneous. As many alumni of NAISDA (the institution which grew out of the initial Redfern Black Theatre workshops) were present, we were already privy to much of the information Ian had compiled, but Carole Johnson, founder of NAISDA Dance College and Bangarra Dance Theatre, added rare insight into her motivation for initially working in the Aboriginal community. Carole originally had no intention of remaining in Australia after her tour as performer with outspoken Colombian-American Human Rights protester and choreographer Eleo Pomare. But she was alerted to the injustices experienced by Aboriginal people through the televised footage of the 1972 Aboriginal Tent Embassy, where she would later perform. She decided to stay on after learning that Aboriginal people weren't legally considered a people. For Carole this was reminiscent of the counting of slaves as three-fifths of a person for tax purposes between the northern and southern states of America in an early version of its constitution.
Carole recalled the initial urgency of Aboriginal people in communicating to her their appalling living conditions and then the satisfaction she felt when, after the change in government, those same Aboriginal communities began to describe with pride the benefits of the newly formed medical centres and other social services. She spoke more specifically about the impact of her contribution to dance, recalling a conversation with Steve Mann where he stated, “We knew we had dance covered because we had the Torres Strait Islander tradition and Aboriginal dance [is] coming back and now the urban people [have] a way of dancing that [is] meaningful as well.”
The most difficult task at hand at Dana Waranara seemed to be the negotiation between community practice/cultural ideals and the commercial/ professional performing arts arena. Surely—with such an expansive representation of the sector in attendance, including representatives from the peak funding body (the Australia Council for the Arts), local, interstate and international presenters from festivals and venues, training and research institutes, along with national and international producers and performance makers—strong headway could be made toward creating strategies for higher visibility and a unanimous desire for a prolific presence of Australian Indigenous ‘product.’
But that's just it. Australian Indigenous dance is not merely a product; it cannot and should not be reduced solely to a commodity. Indigenous dance is primarily a demonstrative communication of relationships with ancestors, with the environment and with community.
Newly appointed Sydney Festival Director Wesley Enoch led a panel addressing “rigour.” The panel comprised Francis Rings, current choreographer-in-residence at Bangarra Dance Theatre, Alaskan Yu’pik and First Nations performance maker Emily Johnson and myself, a NSW independent. Wesley asserted that if we choose to present in the black box theatre, we are in direct competition with the mainstream Western art and must be aware of established conventions. Emily identified her rigorous approach as an assertion of her cultural agenda within and exceeding the boundaries defined by the Western format. By partnering with her current producer—New York-based Meredith Boggia (also in attendance)—she creates her own performance experiences, including feasting rituals and community landcare initiatives.
As a provocation, I vehemently maintained that I don't consider my audience at all. This, of course, is not true. In hindsight, what I meant was that in creating work I have a cultural imperative and all other considerations are secondary. I negotiate my performative/artistic delivery based on my prospective audience. This is no easy task. The Dana Waranara Convergence provided an opportunity for presenters and producers to gain insight into this complex performative plurality whereby an art product is also evidence of fundamental anthropological function. Maori artist Jack Gray proposed presenting venues see themselves as hosts, thereby engaging with their ‘talent’ in a way that encompasses more than the economic, encouraging reciprocity in lieu of standard power dynamics.
Dana Waranara was an event punching above its weight on so many levels. It practically aimed to tackle life, the universe and everything in between....and very nearly pulled it off. There was so much said that the word count for this article couldn’t possibly accommodate. Dana Waranara needs to be a recurring event.
|Jacob Boheme, Penny Miles, Michelle Olsen, Merindah Donnelly, Dana Waranara|
photo Mick Roberts
BlakDance & Performing Lines Dana Waranara, An Indigenous-led convergence bringing together choreographers & presenters, Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, Brisbane, 8-10 Dec 2015, www.blakdance.org.au
Vicki Van Hout, a Wiradjuri woman born on the south coast of NSW, is a leading independent dance-maker whose major works are Briwyant and Long Grass. She recently premiered Les Festivites Lubrifier at Performance Space’s 2015 Liveworks.
See also responses to Dana Waranara from Angharad Wynne-Jones, Liza-Mare Syron and Andrea James commissioned by BlakDance.
© Vicki Van Hout; for permission to reproduce apply to firstname.lastname@example.org