ADC and Blakdance Indigenous Residency

Imagine entering a world where three bozo’s burrow into a burrow, an emu breathes life into a gas tank, while the tree provides an alibi for a shifty body of water and the rubber ring is the third wheel. And let’s not forget the legs who are tangled up in every aspect of this crazy narrative.

Hi there readers, let’s chew the fat all things dance shall we.

What does that opening paragraph signify, you may well ask? The answer- it could be a possible marketing blurb from the result of a three-week creative residency. Yes, I have just been in sunny Queensland with Australasian Dance Collective (ADC) as part of a groundbreaking initiative with Blakdance, the national peak body for Indigenous contemporary dance, both of which are housed in the Judith Wright Centre. This is a two-year program aimed to give Blackfella choreographers at different stages of their careers, from experienced mid-career, to more emergent practitioners the opportunity to create with a mainstream company of virtuosic performers. My residency heralded the first of eight in total.

This opportunity revealed much to me and the dancers of ADC as over the three weeks we learned to negotiate a shared pathway which would accommodate each other’s artistic practices.

Right off the bat I realised my penchant for telling stories was at times construed as a hindrance to the arts making business at hand, when in fact I deem it to be the most important weapon I have in my artful artillery. I could sense, if not see the dancers imagine precious time slipping away from us as I regaled them with endless anecdotes and narratives.

As a dancer trained at NAISDA Dance College I have been taught to prize storytelling as the most effective method of knowledge transmission. In an Indigenous context storytelling prefaces metaphor in preference to a Western form of knowledge transmission which prioritizes listing an equation of facts. Alternatively, communicating in metaphors inherently invites alternatives and ambiguities. When we share stories the imagination is working hard by working out all the potential meanings hidden within its contents. In my case when I initially shared stories about myself I gave the dancers vital clues to my tastes and how I was going to proceed over the ensuing three weeks.

My practice is self-reflexive, and the act of storytelling in this instance would also serve as the primary thematic driver from which all other considerations and inspirations sprung. For narrative is also the primary structure of The Dreaming.

The Dreaming histories are constituted of a complex network of parables and lore dictating how we are to conduct ourselves. The Dreaming also dictates how time is apprehended. Time in a Western context is an entity that has a linear trajectory, it is measured and constantly moving. The Dreaming on the other hand is about being present and presencing. So rather than moving forward or backward in time in a Western context, in The Dreaming one inhabits time as one does with place. Therefore, in The Dreaming all time is considered now-time and is endowed with the potential for multiplicity, that is, to simultaneously inhabit more than one time period or geographical location.

To illustrate this temporal concept I encouraged the dancers to share and more importantly “re-live” their own selected memories, from which one was chosen for us to explore and share this vital Indigenous paradigm through collaborative choreographic play.

The second goal was to try and indoctrinate those beautifully trained bodies with my overarching physical aesthetic. I asked myself, ‘Could this be done in three weeks? Would they embrace the hunched and bent torso after a lifetime of standing so elegantly upright? Could their malleable feet seriously accommodate a sickled flex of the ankle, if just for a moment? Most importantly could the Western demarcation of a sequence that is divisible by counts of 5,6,7 and 8, be temporarily eschewed for an inherent mixed meter of polyrhythms sung freestyle at/in similarly mixed tempi?’

The answer, I am pleased to announce, yes they could.

The process of learning was not one sided. From the ADC collective I learned to let go of my dictatorial reigns in order to let the work expand even further than I have done in the past. I left the result of some task based generated material as is, without the insinuation of my input because their input was both prolific and good. In my effort to leave my trademark in the past, my hand would touch and alter every aspect of a work. This change may have been influenced by a marked increase in my creative workload. Regardless, in this residency I utilised a more egalitarian approach which reflected assuming a creative stewardship rather than the role of supreme authoritarian.

After a showing on the Friday of the second full week I decided to create a song cycle in Wiradjuri language from the content of our collaborative exertions. It was both funny and disconcerting to discover that associate artist and performer Jack Lister is a natural at speaking my mother tongue, in fact better than me! Where I and the rest of the ensemble had to fight to enunciate words that got stuck in the back of our throats, they just rolled off Lister’s tongue with apparent ease. (You can probably tell by this admission that the green eyed monster of jealousy was difficult to reign in at this point.)

The last cultural exchange to occur was in the difference of dance execution. One of the markers of virtuosity in a Western contemporary dance context is the body’s ability to execute a myriad of feats with apparent ease, including ridiculously perilous gymnastic feats. Comparatively a marker of virtuosity for the Indigenous dancer in a community style context is to dance in an understated, almost pedestrian manner. Within a group of dancers who are participating in the dances from remote and regional parts of the country, where the dances have been maintained and performed after colonial settlement, you can always spot the dancer with considerable Western training as they (or we) appear sharp and declarative within a sea of dancing bodies imbued with subtle humility. It is not to say that amongst those community or ‘traditional’ dancers there does not exist the same level of virtuosity, it’s just that the dance overall is less about a collective of individuals than becoming a part of an individual collective dancing together.

So, to the two Lilly’s, Lilly King (aka Lilly Sharp Hair) whose integration of sharp Torres Strait Islander inspired head movements was unparalleled and (Trad-) Lily Potger who spent time in APY Lands and was also trained by the formidable Paul Saliba to move her torso with the articulated isolation of a cat (although in the case of our narrative, a dog), to Harrison Elliot who embraced Aboriginal cultural paradigms with the biggest and most open heart, to Taiga Kita-Leong whose crazy off kilter emu dance dazzled and upstaged almost as much as his wicked sense of co-ordination, to Jack Lister with his ability to speak in tongues, with both body and voice, fast and straight (and crooked too). To my two Indigenous co-horts Olivia Adams (Wulli Wulli) who is the embodiment of best Indigenous and best Western training and Trae Allen (Gomeroi, Bundjalung, Goori) who succinctly demonstrated what it is to dance both with purpose and without ego, the biggest thank you for jumping on the crazy train for these last weeks.

I must not forget Siobhan Lynch whose participation was unfortunately cut short but whose ability to embody almost anything is endowed with an otherworldliness that is inspired. I will say this, “Our journey together is not over.”

Last but not least to the two who cooked up this brainchild Blakdance’s Merindah Donnelly and ADC artistic director Amy Hollingsworth whose generosity has no bounds as it was her memory which got the ball rolling.

In all seriousness, I realise that if our theatres are to meaningfully reflect the cultural diversity of the Australian population these types of initiatives have to be adopted across the board. This is the only way we will expand upon the narrow Western theatrical ubiquity to include what are still deemed artistic literacies of alterity.

So readers, I think I have one more blog in me before the year is out. A little something to tide us over and into the next. So head to Big Dance 2.0 for one more in 23.

Vicki Van Hout
FORM Dance Projects
Blogger in Residence