In Yolngu painting, bir’yun describes the brilliance, shimmer and shine of a pattern that seems to move before the eyes, animated by the essence of ancestral forces -this is the inspiration for Vicki Van Hout’s Briwyant.
Vicki Van Hout is a Wirradjerri woman born in Wollongong on the NSW south coast. In the early 90s she moved to New York and trained with leading modern and post-modern dance artists before returning to Australia in 1996 to perform with Bangarra Dance Theatre. But before that she trained at the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association – now the NAISDA Dance College.
"I was living in a squat called the Gunnery, it was my last year in high school so I was dividing my time between school in Dapto and the squat near Kings Cross. Very naughty. I had auditioned for NIDA the year previously when another squatter suggested I go to NAISDA to find out about my own culture, so my mum wrote away for an application and I did," explains Van Hout. "I auditioned with my NIDA monologues and was invited as an actor to participate in the inaugural black playwrights conference with all the famous aboriginal pioneers, Bob Mazza, Justine Saunders, Rhoda Roberts, Oodgeroo Noonuckle, Ernie Dingo and more. It was a taste of much to come. I have been lucky and honoured to cross paths with so many elders since. At first I was in a constant state of awe and culture shock, such a vast variety and extreme set of living standards. From money-poor but culture-rich communities, to daily urban drudge, or so I thought when I was a student. Starting dance seriously relatively late (19) meant I was always in a state of wretched physical discomfort."
She is now an independent dancer, choreographer and teacher who has developed her own style while continuing to find new and exciting ways to tell traditional stories in a contemporary way. It seems, Van Hout's connection to dance and connection to tradition are interlinked. The discovery of this interdependency became quite a significant chapter in Van Hout's evolution as a dancer.
" I learned many traditional dances on a superficial level when first taught, with novice knowledge," she says. " It was in a lecture at Sydney University that I was told by a Yolngu lecturer the significance of dance in correlation to storytelling song and painting and that we are communicating with ancestors. It felt significant, this particular time I was told. I wanted to know more and selfishly used the making of a performance as the vehicle to investigate. Indigenous dance can mean many things. Actually amongst my peers we discuss this at length. For me it is a passion to explore what makes us unique through the medium of movement. From the actual physical vocabulary to the cultural concepts than underpin indigenous society. But it could equally describe an indigenous person making work. Any work. This is because dance is a purely subjective entity and I believe we can't separate ourselves from our expression. "
Briwyant is a work of choreographic dexterity and interdisciplinary innovation that brings to the stage an experience both ageless and fleeting; a moment of connection. Story telling is a huge part of this work incorporating both literal and figurative stories and becomes an amazing blend of history and raw physicality. Van Hout is aware, however, that all stories must transcend beyond the teller to connect with the sensibilities of the watcher if they are to be effective. " This work was appreciated equally between my peers and a wider audience," she explains. "I have somehow managed to include 'in house' indigenous knowledge whilst not excluding the general public. At last I feel like they get me/us whilst still appreciating not all images need to be explained in detail, which is actually reflective of the way we learn to read a painting or a story, the deeper meaning comes with social standing within a community."
The work, which is described by Van Hout as a moving canvas, is not without it's practical challenges. The combination of dance, dynamic projections and a layered, textured soundscape has Van Hout admitting that there are some technical challenges. "A huge installation of playing cards to form a river that seems bigger than Ben Hur to maintain; consisting of over 1,000 cards spread over approximately 130mats. It needs to be maintained by re-gluing each card individually after each performance. Secondly, the interactive aspect. We use the Isadora program that is triggered by the dancers movement on stage. It failed once, but once is enough to set you on edge and make you cross your fingers 'til you squeeze all circulation out of them in the hope that all will go well."
Briwyant plays at the Malthouse Theatre July 4 – July 14