By Raymond Blanco
The current state of Indigenous contemporary dance and its future
I am a descendant of the Pajinka Wik of Cape York and the Magarem of Mer Island in the Torres Strait. I’d like to acknowledge the local mob, their elders, spirits and stories who once owned the country upon which Canberra was built and in so doing thank them for welcoming this gathering on their lands. I hope they are able to instill in us the strength, courage and unrelenting audacity of the participants of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in 1972 to be able to make this forum as much a catalytic event for our dance as the Tent Embassy was for our peoples.
In order to give an educated assessment of the state of Indigenous contemporary dance today, in order to figure out how we got to be where we are and in some way give a vision for the future of Indigenous contemporary dance—or at least try to predict where our current actions or non-actions are taking us—we must start at the beginning.
What is contemporary Indigenous dance? When did this term become associated with our culture, our dance? Or is it Indigenous Contemporary? Have we an Historical Dance Culture or are we living a Dance Culture History? Do we make now from then or is it from then now? For some of us exposure to contemporary Indigenous dance came from television. If we were really lucky we had a group of dancers come to our town and teach and perform at our schools, and for the unlucky our only exposure came from Bangarra.
I say that not to derogatory of the company or its achievements. I say it because these few people who only know of contemporary Indigenous dance from Bangarra—or only acknowledge the movement of Indigenous contemporary dance since Bangarra—have been robbed or are robbing themselves of a history that is filled with the rich and exciting, edgy, raw dance of the beginnings of a movement forward of our peoples.
Contemporary Indigenous dance may have started in the mid–70s around the time of the Tent Embassy and with the dance course offered through Black Theatre, but I put it to you that it began in 1884 when Tambo and eight other Aboriginal persons were taken to perform throughout Europe. You take the dance out of its rightful place and it immediately becomes contemporised. Ever since Tambo, Indigenous Australians have been assuming the mediums of Western ‘civilised’ cultures in the desperate hope that it would lead to some better understanding of our cultures and the importance of our contribution to the Western way of life. This effort of our forefathers has never been returned in any substantial way or effort. We all know how to be white but no white person knows how not to be.
Back at the Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Scheme (AISDS) there was a unique opportunity for us to truly nurture the art of dance and culture. Whatever happened, however bad things seemed to be, there was an unwritten law that we all looked out for each other. This went outside the classroom and studio. We supported each other and shared and helped. It was an extension of Indigenous traditional heritage that we all instinctively respected and assumed was a part of this special magic we were being entrusted with.
Then came competition and out the door went culture. First years felt inadequate, fourth years were in competition with fifth years, third years thought they were better than some fourth years and then second years were overlooked ’cos they were nowhere really. This was the beginning of the end for the organisation.
Luckily, at the time, Australia was keen to hear stories from an urban point of view and creativity flowed into the repertoire of the Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre—‘the Company’. Although I was appointed the first ever Indigenous Artistic Director of the first ever Indigenous Contemporary Dance Company, the company was never mine alone.
The Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre (AIDT) was always and will always be known as a company that allowed and afforded the dancers a chance to explore avenues of expression for their own stories. So we staged the first ever adaptation of a Torres Strait Island legend in Dujon Niue’s Gelam and the first contemporary interpretation of Indigenous use of colour in Colours, a concept from dancer Gary Lang, choreographed by Marilyn Miller, Dujon Niue and myself, and the repertoire continued to grow throughout the company’s history, the first company to become known as the most toured company in Australia. There were times when we’d simply come back to Sydney, unpack do the laundry, re-pack and head back to the airport or get in the bus and head out on the road.
So you may think that Indigenous contemporary dance began with the training institute that bore the renaissance of Indigenous dance in Glebe. Or with the six students who were the first ever in AISDS, Wayne Nicol, Lillian Crombie, Michael Leslie, Darrell Phillips and Dorothea Randall, with Kim Walker and Cheryl Stone, who we know weren’t Indigenous but were integral parts of the development of the organisation. Well, that began with the start of Black Theatre in Cope St, Redfern, when the Black Theatre decided to include dance as part of its research studies. And part of that were Maureen Watson, Christine Donnelly, Uncle Bob Maza and a host of other leaders in the Indigenous struggle toward acceptance in mainstream society of Indigenous people as serious contributors to the myth of the Australian national identity.
And why did it all start? Because, according to some, there were no blackfellas anywhere in the performing arts unless you played the noble savage. Well, I put forward that Indigenous people took up the mantle of contemporary performance way back in the 40s as another attempt to try to be taken seriously. Attempts at trying to re-educate the non-Indigenous populace about the value and relevance of Indigenous cultures have been ongoing and will continue beyond you and me. We can only hope that what we do allows those coming after us to take the struggle further. We can no longer put up with patronising attempts to make our stories palatable to the non-Indigenous masses. The Australian nation is a myth until Indigenous culture and prior sovereignty are embraced and acknowledged as a culture that has a valued contribution to our futures.
At the time of writing (2005) Raymond Blanco was the General Manager of Kooemba Jdarra Indigenous Performing Arts Company