Theatrepeople's Christian Cavallo talks all things dance and Bangarra, with four of the industries most respected choreographers to find out more about their up coming project Dance Clan 3

Image – Jasmine Sheppard, Photo –  Greg Barrett

As Bangarra Dance Theatre prepare to open their upcoming show, Dance Clan 3, we chatted to the four female choreographers at the helm of the project. Deborah Brown, Jasmin Sheppard, Tara Gower and Yolande Brown are four inspired dancers and proud indigenous women in their own right and have each choreographed part of Dance Clan 3. We sat down with the emerging choreographers to find out a little more about Dance Clan 3 and what it means to them.

TP: Can you describe for us in your own words what Dance Clan 3 is…?

Deborah: As a part of the inaugural Corroboree Sydney Festival, it is the platform for four of Bangarra’s senior dancers to showcase and debut ideas and stories they’ve nursed close to their hearts. It will be a tasting platter of indigenous stories, sharing the highs and lows of the diverse culture we celebrate.

Jasmin: Our works are all diverse and share Indigenous stories from all over Australia.

Yolande: It's a unique experience where audiences can get up close and personal with some of our finest dancers, in our intimate theatre, and witness the debut journeys of four emerging female choreographers. You will be able to sink your imaginations into the sands of Australia's underbelly and be carried on a dance journey stretching like a song line from Broome, The Torres Straits, and the Central Desert to our great Sydney region. These are stories that add to the definition of Australia.

TP: You've mentioned the project draws on stories from indigenous culture. What does it mean to you to be able to work on a project like this?

Deborah: I’m very proud to deliver and share a Torres Strait Island based story alongside my Bangarra sisters. There are so many stories from across the continent that should be shared and I’m beyond pleased that I can share a small taste of a part of the Island’s history.

Tara: To be able to work on a project like this is very unique as it gives the senior women of the company a voice through through the medium of dance.

Deborah: I love storytelling and am looking forward to an audience engaging with these dance pieces. I really believe that telling indigenous stories helps our self-esteem and identity as indigenous an non-indigenous Australians.

Jasmin: To me it is vital to the survival of our culture to continue to tell our stories. It is a part of who we are, and I feel that I can use the dance medium to share our experience. It's been an honour to tell this story from the Dharawal point of view.

Yolande: There are so many important Indigenous stories to be told. One of the most difficult parts of this choreographic journey was pinpointing which story I wanted to explore for my first work at Bangarra. I love hearing about great movements for change; of historical moments where people unite for positive change and the power of the individual combines in sparks and spot fires that unite to burn down the old and pave the way for a better future – bush gardening for our futures. I believe as individuals we can all make choices to create a positive imprint locally, nationally and globally. I returned to my earliest adventures within the company for inspiration for this work and took my heart back to our red centre and the Central Desert elder women who had shared their passions, vivaciousness, and positivity with me in my first few years in the company.  

In 1999, Aunties from around Ernabella taught me their land right's song in language. This song was kindling for my ideas as I dug down into our desert dirt history unearthing my story for Dance Clan -The 1978 Batik Project. I have a deep pride for how a group of elder desert woman painted their way into the forefront of Australian politics, engaging Australians and internationals in the successful pursuit of native title. These motivated, energised elder women poured their dream stories onto a series of Batiks to be presented to the high court, detailing their in-depth knowledge of country and reappropriating the oppressive fabric of assimilation for liberation. The Batik Project not only spurred a successful land rights claim but also pushed Utopia into the forefront of the late 20th Century Australian Desert art movement, the project sparking the careers of various artists including the renowned Emily Kame Ngwarraway.

Image – Yolande Brown

TP: Other than indigenous ties, what attracted you to this project and what do you believe you have brought to it?

Jasmin: For a while I have had the hunger to create, so the opportunity to do a work for Dance Clan 3 has been great. I am very interested in history, so Macq's subject matter has been fulfilling that part of me. I also wanted to tell an experience from this city, one that many people in Sydney may not be aware of.

Tara: My indigenous ties are the sole reason why this project is so important. I believe that I didn't chose dance, in fact dance chose me to be a vessel to express our important stories of culture. With the support of Bangarra Dance Theatre I hope to bring the next generation into a more sustainable cultural future.

Yolande: I am honoured to be given the opportunity to create a work with my amazing peers – some of Australia's top dancers.  It is wonderful to work with people who are ready to fully commit to your ideas and help bring your creative vision to life.  

Deborah: The chance to work with film was a big draw card for me. This story has been pulsing in my dreams for years and to be able to paint it in such an intimate setting has been a thrilling journey. I think the chance to position myself in a different role as choreographer and director was a challenge that I had an appetite to test out.

TP: What can people expect to see in the performance?

Deborah: Diversity. We have all chosen a story that represents and tells a story from a different nation of the continent. I’m not too familiar with all the ladies works but from what I do know there’ll be laughter, disbelief, empathy, highs, lows, beauty, spirit.

Tara: People can expect a very entertaining night, where indigenous stories through dance are going to be showcased from all over Australia. Deborah is doing a Torres Strait islander inspired film, Jasmin's work is a historical piece on Sydney, Yolande draws her inspiration from central Australia and I'm bringing a taste of the Kimberley's to the shores of Walsh Bay. My piece is titled "Nala" which means light within the darkness in my Yawuru language. Nala is essentially my Grandparents story from Broome with comic highlights. This draws the audience in only to find dark abstract elements representing progress and the effect this has on our people trying to maintain a cultural indentity within a highly western influenced society.

Jasmin: It will be a broad range of experience. I am sure the audience will laugh, perhaps cry, definitely be moved, and hopefully learn a little bit more about our beautiful country. I anticipate that the evening will be a feast for all of the senses.

Image – Deborah Brown 

TP: Four works make up the production. They are named Nala, Macq, Dive and Imprint. You have each choreographed one of the works; describe what each work is about, how they differ and how they intertwine. (Is there a running theme? An overall message?)

Deborah: I’m not too familiar on the other works except for Yolande’s as I am part of the cast for Imprint. What I can say is that each girl has a very strong identity on their own which in turn will deliver an eclectic showing of dance stories. Just watching how each girl carries rehearsals has shown how each of us has our own strong voice and desire to tell stories we find worthy to share.

Jasmin: There is no running theme for all four works, other than that we are all female current dancers from the company, and we share the stage with all the dancers we are working on. I think the main message is that this country and all its Indigenous people are connected yet so diverse. The show will travel the country through its song lines and share this with the audience.

TP: There are 14 dancers in your ensemble. How were these people selected?

Yolande: Usually, the company holds auditions when we are in need of new company dancers. It is always good for people who are interested in joining the company to invest some time in visiting us while we are in Sydney and spending a few days joining in company class. The company dancers at the moment are all of Indigenous descent from various parts of Australia from Broom to The Torres Strait Islands, Central Queensland, Central Desert regions etc etc.  We are all very different people and add our own flavour of bush herbs to this fabulous company. And yes, we have had non-Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander dancers in the company in the past and I'm sure we will again in the future.

Deborah: The two main dancers in my film are Waangenga Blanco and Luke Currie Richardson, both of who share ancestry with me. I’ve always felt a strong bond with both these boys and could trust them to bring a strong sense of the fearless island men of whom I’ve based my story upon. I admire my ancestry greatly and am pleased to tread the boards with men who share that same bloodline. It makes me feel closer to my ancestors.

Jasmin: Through the rehearsal period the allotted times with each choreographer were shared, and most dancers are in all four works.

TP: Artistic Director, Stephen Page, has been with the company since 1991. What is it like to work with him? What does he bring to each piece?

Tara: Working with artistic director Stephen Page is very inspiring. He has a certain way of making you feel comfortable in the studio, which allows you as a dancer to give all of your personal artistry and surrender your soul to the stage. 

Deborah: I’ve always enjoyed working with Stephen since joining the company. He’s very generous in mentoring. I find he’s excellent at balancing art with heart and intelligence. I’ve been working under his leadership for 11 years and am a big believer of bringing these cultural stories to the forefront of Bangarra’s artistic vision. I’ve also learnt to balance what’s sacred and ancient with a dose of laughter in rehearsals.

Yolande: Steven is a very passionate, driven artist and is an inspiration to work with. He approaches every work from the heart of the story and encourages us to bring our own ideas and interpretations to each and every work and in doing so we continue developing ourselves as artists.

Jasmin: It is such a blessing to have him as my mentor throughout my career as a dancer, and as a guide and mentor for my first work for Bangarra.

Tara: With each of Stephen's works he brings a different story, which challenges us personally as young indigenous people. We are expected own the movements choreographed with our own creative essence and find a way to relate to which ever given story personally.

Image – Tara Gower

TP: Bangarra Dance Theatre has been running since 1989. What have been the significant changes through the company over that time and how do you, today, hope to reach and appeal to new audiences?

Deborah: I find the biggest change is the dance vocabulary that’s evolving within the company. I believe that we still have a sense and duty to maintain the integrity of what’s ancient but I’ve also found with the injection of new dancers throughout the years that a desire to explore and expand our dance vocabulary has changed.

Tara: The turn over of dancers are the main changes I've noticed, as we are such a tight family orientated group of people. This dynamic is crucial in influencing how a piece is brought to the stage. 

Yolande: I joined Bangarra in 1999 and it's been wonderful being a part of the growth the company has gone through in the last 15 years. There were four woman (me included) and four men – all outstanding dancers who worked extremely hard without the safe dance support we currently have. There was close to no support for physiotherapy/massage/nutrition yet we still performed up to and over 100 shows per year. Mid-year 1999 we had an expansion and taking on more dancers and this enabled us to share out the work load and do more extensive ensemble work. The company now has a cast of 14 full-time dancers, 7 woman and 7 men, and we have physiotherapy twice a week and massage once a week to help us stay on top of our athleticism. I have heard that next year we will have a physiotherapist with us on call every day. This support means that we can continue to push ourselves to new physical levels and this feeds directly into the calibre of work we produce.

Jasmin: The Company, throughout its entire metamorphosis over the last 25 years has endeavoured to stay respectful toward our cultural roots. In Indigenous culture we look back to our history and dreamtime, and our ancestors' wisdom in order to move forward into the future as a people, and I believe Bangarra reflects that. I think that Dance Clan 3 aims to emulate this also. All four works look into different moments in the history of Indigenous experience. Hopefully the audience will feel this too.

Tara: I'm forever greatful for Bangarras existence since 1989, as the company provides a cultural platform for people who have been disconnected from their heritage as a result of our history. I believe this hasn't changed. Over the last eight years that I've been in the company cultural protocol has always been a crucial element in the development of any of our works. 

Yolande: In terms of reaching and appealing to new audiences, the main passage to explore is marketing and embracing the internet, and when you have a great product to market this should not be too difficult a job.   

Deborah: I also find social media has helped the company become more accessible. People locally and remotely can continue to keep up to date with where we are in the world, what productions are coming, what new stories are developing. Forever educating. 

TP: What are you most looking forward to seeing as the Dance Clan 3 opens to audiences?

Jasmin: I am excited to hear the audience's response, and to watch my first Bangarra work be unveiled to the public.

Tara: As an emerging choreographer I want to maintain our cultural protocols whilst bringing a fresh humorous element to our age old ways. As Dance Clan 3 unfolds I hope to see audiences laughing and enjoying the beauty of our people, however simultaneously left asking serious questions of what does it take, and what can I do individually to help bring future generations into a more knowledgable sustainable cultural future of confidence?

Yolande: A work always grows and develops over each and every season. I love watching the evolution of our pieces as the dancers breathe the repertoire deeper and deeper into their bodies. I'm looking forward to seeing how this work develops over this short season.

Deborah: I look forward to audiences being open and hungry for more stories and prepared to celebrate and digest these new works. Just plating the seed of a story that people may not have been aware of but are will now be open to brings me great pride. Again, I just love diversity, and the more stories that are celebrated, I think the tighter our community, locally, nationally and globally, becomes! I really do hope hat audiences can identify and be proud what’s uniquely Australian.

And with that, the ladies of Bangarra Theatre get back to their busy rehearsal schedule before the beginning of next week’s season. 

Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Dance Clan 3 runs from;

Wed 20th November – Sun 1st December 
at Bangarra Studio Theatre Pier 4.

Bookings on 02 9251 5333 or at