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Daniel Riley McKinley (foreground), Kaine-Sultan Babij, Blak rehearsal, Bangarra Daniel Riley McKinley (foreground), Kaine-Sultan Babij, Blak rehearsal, Bangarra
photo Greg Barrett

In the rehearsal room, McKinley speaks quietly, unhurriedly, checking on moves previously established, homing in on details, watching himself and the other dancers in the studio mirror as collective movement takes shape—elbows thrust out, hands reaching back in, claw-like, flexed sharply at wrists. An arm angled across the torso becomes a fixed line against which the body, dancing from a low centre of gravity, rises and sinks. There’s a meticulousness and fluidity in the detail which was also evident in Riley, the work McKinley (RT 94, p4) choreographed as part of Bangarra’s Of Sky and Earth (2010). I wrote at the time that there was “an inventiveness and welcome unpredictability in [McKinley’s] choreography.” McKinley tells me that with Scar he’s not simply creating a work but generating a dialogue among the men in Bangarra.

Tell me about the subject of the dialogue you’ve started with the men in the company?

I was really interested in creating something fresh and something contemporary around the subject of Indigenous boys going into manhood. Obviously it’s inspired by traditional initiation ceremonies, that transition from boyhood to manhood and how it works in traditional communities with the scarring and the boys being sent into the bush and having to make their way back. They’re told stories and taught songs and their level of responsibility changes.

For us, as contemporary Indigenous young men or boys, I feel it’s not so clear-cut because of this crazy world. If we live in Sydney, a beautiful city, we’re not consistently with culture. I get my daily culture fix coming to Bangarra. This is the reason I’m here, the reason I dance here, the reason I wanted to join Bangarra when I graduated from QUT—to learn about, to get culture.

Through dance?

I love dancing and I found out about my Aboriginality at quite a young age and for me, dance was that exploration of what it meant to be an Indigenous male. Every day is a learning experience. I leave here at Christmas holidays every year and I look back and think, “I’ve learned so much this year.” Stephen (Page) is the same. He’s consistently learning too. And the culture is constantly changing. There’s 40,000 years of culture to learn from and we’re always trying to find what it is.

And where you sit in it?

For me (in Scar) it was about trying to find out what the transition was for us from boys to men. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot since I joined Bangarra in 2007. Being a young first year dancer, you’re taught everything. It’s almost like you’re the youngest brother of the seven boys. So, you look up to your brothers. They’re older and they’ve got the knowledge and they’ve lived more and they have all the experience. I wanted to know when was that moment for me. I still wonder, when will I reach it? Have I reached it? When was that moment? Is it a series of steps? Is it a set of experiences that you gather together and put in your pocket and carry with you?

As choreographer you inevitably play a senior role.

Yes, of course. I’m in my seventh year, so I’m recognised in the company as a senior dancer, which I still find quite strange because I’m only 27. I think, a senior? Whoa! I’m choreographing, and dancing in the work too.

You didn’t dance in Riley, your first work, did you?

I wanted to be able to step away from it, to be able to view it as an audience whereas with this work, I want to experience it. I want to be the conductor but also be part of the band. I’m not creating every step—more just directing, forming and shaping things. So, it’s a huge collaborative effort because of the subject matter. It’s a personal thing, so I can’t exactly say, “do this or do that” or “no, that doesn’t feel right.” If (something) feels right for Waangenga (Blanco), then he should be able to do that.

So each of the dancers has a different idea of where they are in the manhood trajectory?

Exactly right, because we’re all within a 10-year gap. Waangenga is almost 30 and as a guest artist we’ve got Hunter Page-Lochard, Stephen Page’s son, who’s about to turn 21.

Have some of the dancers had more traditional experiences or are they largely from urban backgrounds?

We all grew up urban. Waangenga had a lot of connection with his Indigenous family and customs through the Torres Strait. Lenny (Mickelo) was connected to his Indigenous family but I’m not sure whether he learned dances or not. He lived in Brisbane and in Cherbourg. We’ve all had a mixed bag of experiences. We’ve all come from different places and we’re creating this gathering place onstage and in the rehearsal room.

It’s a really broad subject. What I find difficult is to bring it into one half-hour work. Obviously it’s not going to answer the question. I guess it will pose more questions. But through the course of the work, as men and boys onstage, we will go through that transition. So, it’s going to be a journey every night for us.

Presumably, even though you may not have experienced traditional life first-hand, you’re still drawing on it—there’s such a long tradition in Bangarra of spiritual advisors and investigation.

Of course, everything that Bangarra does is ingrained in that tradition, ingrained in culture. Djakapurra who’s performed with us many times has scarring between his pecs. Having danced with him a few times, I was just so interested in what they were. We got talking and that’s when I thought, well, maybe I should do a new ‘men’s work.’ I think the last men’s work at Bangarra was 2001. Stephen did Spear which was part of Skin. That’s a huge inspiration, but I’m reeling it in to where we are today as contemporary men. [Imagine] we’re a group of seven Indigenous boys walking the streets of Redfern. You look at them and think, “Where are they going? What’s their journey going to be?” They’re unlikely, in the city, to get traditional initiation. If they’re lucky enough they might get to go to the bush to do that. When will their responsibilities change?

To do this, have you adopted, as in Riley, a series of images to work to or is there a narrative?

There’s a sort of a story arc. I’m trying to stay away from vignettes. With Riley, it was very clear-cut. I had Michael Riley’s images that are so incredibly beautiful and they each had a story of their own anyway. [This time] I’d go home each night and think, “What am I trying to say?” Am I trying to take the audience on a journey or the dancers? I came to the decision that I’m going to take the dancers on a journey and the audience are voyeurs. It’s like they’ve stumbled across this gathering of boys going through this ceremony, the rite of passage, together.

Is there a sense of ritual in the work?

Absolutely. We will be doing some traditional dance and we’re using Djakapurra’s voice, but the rest of the sound is contemporary. I’ve got David Page and Paul Mac doing the music. So it’s really electronic and bassy. I was really inspired by those grimy, dirty hip hop instrumentals, bands like Clams Casino and those dirty beats for ASAP Rocky and other rappers out of America. A lot of Indigenous kids listen to that music. That’s the music of their generation. And I listen to that. It’s got this ‘attitude,’ this ego and pride behind it.

There’s a lot of vulnerability in this state as well, isn’t there?

Absolutely. The boys and I have talked a lot about that and what that vulnerability is and where that happens. We spoke about pre- and post- adolescence and what manhood is and who you look up to and who you see as a man and why. When you’re in high school, you’re trying to be yourself, but people are judging you. It’s so difficult. Even now, we’re still vulnerable. So, we’ll definitely be exploring that.

Will the seven performers each have a discrete persona?

Because the boys are creating the movement, they’re gonna be themselves. But in another sense I sort of see us as six different sides of Hunter. He’s the youngest and closest to the age we’re exploring. We’ve always had spirit guides in Bangarra—Aunty Kathy Balngayngu Marika and Djakapurra Munyarryun—but I’m sort of going to touch on a younger one, a boy who’s conducting it and who connects us and pulls us through this story. Hunter has done all his NIDA courses and films and TV shows, so his acting ability, that’s something I can draw from. And his dancing too (he’s studied ballet), it’s a good challenge for him. He loves Bangarra and he’s a great kid and we love him. It’s nice to have this youthful energy in the room. It looks so raw on him.

What about design?

Quite sparse. I’m just having a black box. [Jacob Nash’s] design for Riley was white and open. With this there’s a feeling of being more under the earth, in an underground club with this driving bass. It’s dark and moody. A few props, but mainly the light will dissect the space; the lighting (designer Matt Cox) will dictate space and shifts in mood.

And clothing?

Again, very simple and contemporary. There are so many images: the 2011 London Riots—young boys running (through) the streets in hoods. It was like they could put them on like their invisibility cloaks. We spent two weeks in Arnhem Land a month ago. We love going up there. We learn traditional dance around the fire, we sit with the kids and we just hang out with them, do what they do, find out what they get up to on these small outstations. It’s amazing how they fill their time even though there’s nothing to do out there. They sit and chat, play basketball…Looking around at what they wear, it’s all mismatched—big baggy basketball singlets and shorts, socks with thongs and hats, sunglasses at night. Their idea of fashion is really cool. You look at it and you think, well it sort of doesn’t work, but then it works on you. It helps to have their beautiful dark skin; all the colours they wear look so amazing on them. We took lots of photos when we were up there. Luke Ede is the costume designer and he’s looking at all that.

Transition into manhood in Indigenous traditional culture is men’s business and is full of secrets. Does that play some sort of role in this work?

I spoke to Djakapurra about it before we started, asked him about what traditional dance we could have for it and what song. He said there are some songs that I can’t give you. I said that’s completely fine. So he’s come up with a song that suits (the work) and a dance…the meaning of it is really poignant, really beautiful for what we’ve come out of and what we’re going into. It’s a water dance, for cleansing—the post-ceremonial dance. Goosebumps. It’s quite powerful. And the song is incredible. I sat next-door as Djakapurra recorded it at David’s [Page] studio. His voice is so incredible.

[As for the arc, in Scar you’ll see] seven men dancing. Okay, cool: they’re dancing and they’re together, but then they look frustrated. We’re going to dive down into that deep, dark hole, (into) that physical and mental frustration. We’ll rise out of that hole: “Ah!,” when it’s almost like a light [turned on]. Yes, we’re finally almost there. We’ll reach a kind of euphoria—in whatever form that will be at the end of Scar. There’s a story, a shape. Now we’re at work just colouring it.”

Bangarra Dance Theatre, Blak, National tour: Arts Centre, Melbourne, May 3-11; IPAC, Wollongong, May 17, 18; Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, June 8-22; Canberra Theatre Centre, July 11-13; QPAC, Brisbane, July 18-27;

RealTime issue #114 April-May 2013 pg. 36

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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