A practitioner speaks: Excerpts from an interview with David McMicken

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Jacqueline Simmonds interviews David McMicken for Dancers and communities: a collection of writings about dance as a community art.

Will you talk about your work with Brown's Mart, in particular your work with Aboriginal communities?

David: When I first came to the Territory in 1991 I'd already had a lot of connection with artist Tim Newth and contact with other people who'd been up and down from here: Beth Shelton, Deb Batton and Meredith Blackburn amongst others. People were asking me every year to come up here and I'd say 'not Darwin, not Darwin, it's the last place in the world I'd ever want to go' but then gradually I got more and more interested. One of the most interesting things was Tim's absolute passion for Lajamanu, a Warlpiri community which I knew nothing about. Down south I had not worked with Aboriginal people, they just did not seem visible, although now if I go down there and work it's a priority of mine to lift that visibility. I was just desperate, like lots of people are, desperate in the worst, worst possible way to get into the Lajamanu community and find out what it's about. It's very hard to get into Aboriginal communities for very obvious reasons. You've got to have reasons to go there and they say yes or no at any time. What they judge that on tends to be more about relationships which are the foundation for everything they do, the interconnectedness of people and how they relate and the obligations that go with that.

In 1992 I returned to Darwin in the position of choreographer in residence with Brown's Mart Community Arts Project, taking over from Sarah Calver whilst she was on maternity leave. I worked on a series of projects, the first being the older women's cabaret—older women means they're all over 50. Then I went to Alice Springs and worked at Yipirinya School. This school teaches in five different languages, one of which is Warlpiri, which is what they speak in Lajamanu. Warlpiri is one of the largest desert tribes and I learned a little bit about their culture from being in that school with those people.

What did you do at Yipirinya school?

David: Tim and I were to create a full length performance piece for the students. We arrived to a staff that didn't appear to want us there—they were a totally new staff to when the project was set up and their year to date had been plagued with disruptions due to deaths and the proposed Alice Springs Dam. In school their classes are split into language groups rather than age groups. Half the teaching is done in English and half in vernacular language. Each group of students has two classrooms so they're clearly making a separation. Working at the school was very confronting for me, I hadn't worked with Aboriginal people before, let alone four cultures plus English!

The project ran for five weeks and included between 200 and 250 kids. Attendance was erratic! The work was about these people and where they came from and their stories about their land. The final performance was one hour long, comprising of class groups and a finale. It was attended by approximately 500 people—many more than we expected. It was performed on a large grassy area in the middle of the school which is on the outskirts of the town. The kids all live in town camps and there's no other school in Alice Springs that these Aboriginal students feel comfortable in. This school is something at least they own, they feel this is their school. Tim and I returned to Yipirinya School in 1995 to do another project.

The work in Aboriginal communities and with Aboriginal people is certainly I think, one of the most important aspects of the work Tracks does here in the Territory and it's one of the most challenging. It's the area that most people away from here are interested in because, predominantly, the Aboriginal work here is out in remote communities and with full-blood people who still have some connection to a traditional philosophy.

The Lajamanu community is really a very remote community, approximately 900 km south west of Darwin. It's on the edge of the Tanami Desert, it's really dusty, it's really red, it's like a foreign country. Having a relationship with these people and a connection which has grown stronger over the years has really changed, dramatically and significantly, the way I look at all the work I do because it has changed me.
The Lajamanu people need to know who you are and where you fit it. So they had to give me a relationship name that fitted me in with all these people, to make sure there were no taboos so I could play with the kids or so they could teach me. They want me to know the language, they want me to understand. For me to then go in as an artist into these situations, I assimilate that information in a way that they know I can understand. I take that physically into storytelling, into theatre, into painting, into drawing, into making large images. I'd go to Lajamanu and they might show me a dance but I would never dance that dance. It's important to know that just because you have knowledge of something or the skill of something doesn't mean you actually have the rights to use it. It certainly doesn't mean that you pass that on to someone else necessarily, willy nilly.

I can't take all my experiences from Lajamanu into another Aboriginal community. Although I have worked in other communities I can't get at that level in another community and it's conflicting for me to do that. One makes an enormous commitment to being in, learning about and relating to a specific culture. It is too exhausting to do that for every Aboriginal culture I come in contact with. One way of working does not automatically cross over to other communities. You have to build a relationship with Aboriginal people first to get significant work and that is what's important to me. This I am doing with the Warlpiri tribe and I am gradually being taken deeper and deeper. I want the same right as artistic directors of companies to say 'now having worked for this number of years with these people, now I'm ready.' But what do you get told as a community artist? 'You've done it there, now go and do it somewhere else.' I'm not interested in replicating. I mean that would kill me as an artist to say 'oh now I've got a formula.' But people in different places are different to each other and all of that is why community dance here is different to other parts of Australia. Darwin's different and it should be different. We've got a different population, we've got different demographics, different restrictions.

When I worked at Richmond High School (in Melbourne) I was doing dance with English as a Second Language kids and we had 14 Asian languages in the one classroom. The teacher couldn't believe that the kids would work together but they did fantastic work. Movement allows that to happen, but it's also having the knowledge of how to do that. It's not just this magic thing that movement does, but it's a vehicle to get there. I can do something as an artist and movement is the strongest vehicle I have to drive through these things because it's not language based, but it allows language to come into it. Lajamanu Kurra Karna Yani was a good example—it was a development of a new form of theatre, a physical theatre that was strongly linked with Indigenous people with links to the land saying what they wanted to say, having learned a few particular skills, western based skills if you like, but mixing those things together. Something that gives me great joy and I don't know how true this is, but we were told that the kids that we worked with in the performance groups in Lajamanu are stronger in their ceremonial work. They're the ones who are much more up front about it and give it a go.

Can you give an example of how working with Lajamanu children is different to working with white children?

David: We praise the individual, they praise the group. They think that way, they think as a team. So you have to create work that allows them to be a group. You single out a person like you do in a western classroom and that kid's likely to leave the classroom.

During the creation of Lajamanu Kurra Karna Yani we had a singer come in to work with the kids on some songs they wanted to do and on some music. She had a hell of a time because she kept trying to work out who was the best drummer and give them the part, which is what we would do, as we want the best we can get. And they would go 'no.' If say there were two brothers in the group and the younger brother was given a better job, the younger brother would hand it over and say 'it's not mine to do, it doesn't matter that I might be better at it.' Or the next day they might change and say 'now it's your turn, I've had my turn.' So you have to create performance material that allows that to happen, or the way we do it is to get them to create it. But you have to understand what's going on and find ways that allow that structural way of working to come to the fore.

In terms of genre, how would you describe the sort of material the Lajamanu kids come up with?

David: I think it's looking at a new form. It is movement theatre, physical theatre. We ask 'what do you want to say and what's the best way of saying it?' rather than 'what sort of dance statement can we make?' It is hybrid in its very essence.

Is it influenced by popular culture, like they've seen on television, or by their traditional dance?

David: Yes to both. Top End kids are right into black culture, but the only positive black culture they get is presented to them on video and even then it's not that positive. It's black hip-hop sort of culture and these kids see black people expressing an anger in a really stylish way and so they take that on but they subvert it to their own means. Just because they live in a remote community does not mean that they have no access to other cultural influences. TV and video are strong but so is music and other things. Aboriginal people travel a lot and they take on new influences as much as other people do. A lot of communities have a way of dancing at night time and the dancing is like disco. It might just be a tape deck on the basketball court until the batteries run out, but it's so exciting, it's where a lot of action happens. It's really short, sharp bursts of dancing, five or six seconds and off again, often the shirt's over the head so you're not supposed to know who they are. It's anonymous and incredibly sexy!

The first two Lajamanu shows were interesting because the kids were performing a lot, but there's always an erratic energy level. You never know if they're going to do it or not and sometimes it's hard to get them really excited. You see this in their performance, they might simply go 'oh yeah, I'm going through the motions and moves.' What I experienced being with those kids was to say ' let's do a dance section which is like at the rec. hall at night time where you are only on for a few seconds then off.' Suddenly they're there with you. Boys and girls simply do not mix very much publicly or even in their own private lives, so I have to create performance that uses that, where the girls work and the boys work but separately, but they exist together in space like they do in their community.
In their community the traditional is not historical, it is contemporary. It's not unusual to see women painted up for 'sorry business' while there's a football match going on, and the girls are playing basketball. It's not like 'now I'm traditional, now I'm modern,' so that's what we did with the show. We had traditional women doing what they were doing while the kids were playing football. They don't see that as being unusual, to them that's quite normal.

The Lajamanu people have a really intricate sign language because they've got speaking taboos at times. They also use sign language for long distance. Sarah and I used that in the last piece. Sarah was using Australian signing and I used Warlpiri signing. It allows for an interesting gestural base for a lot of the work. They're fantastic comics and acrobats, but they won't necessarily do it in performance. Find a situation where you say 'let's tell stories' and they do it. So the form of theatre that's developing is highly visual, semi narrative, and with a strong movement base.

Will you talk about your connection with the territory in terms of 'place'?

David: The Territory is a vast place which covers areas of desert as well as the tropics and much in between. It is a very special place which feels very old to me. East Coast feels young, new and vibrant. The Territory feels rich with wisdom and very old truths. In my community work and in my personal professional work, I've always looked at things that interest me which are really personal issues that tie a person to particular places at particular times and whether those sites are emotional sites or physical sites. A person is also a site, I see the cultural text that has been created. I'm interested in what its links are rather than how I've gone about creating it.

When I came back from Lajamanu in 1993, Sarah and I created what I think is a very significant work called Sacred Space. This work came from questioning as a white person—working with Aboriginal people and going into their places—what rights do I have, what emotional responses do I have, what are the difficulties I have, like the notions of culture shock and how real is that for me? Also, what effect does my presence have on another culture? I've got an education and resources and finances to be able to cope far better going into their situation than they can when coming into mine. I can always leave. I just get in my car and leave, or fly out on the plane. They come up to Darwin and it's really hard, it's so foreign and they're such a minority group. In Lajamanu I'm the minority. Even if I was the only white person there's only 600 other people. They come to Darwin to 70,000 people and they can still feel alone. Those are significant things that inform how you look at the community. We see Sacred Space and Silent Thought (choreographed by Tim Newth) as a way of showing where we're coming from. These pieces are more than 'oh let's just create a work.' Sacred Space worked in Darwin with whatever audience was there, it worked in the smaller regional towns, Katherine, Tennant Creek, Alice Springs, and it worked out in the middle of nowhere, in remote communities.

What sort of feedback did you get?

David: People just loved what we did. But when we tour those sorts of works we try never to just perform them. There's always a workshop program with it which we strongly encourage the schools to take on and usually we make it as cheap as we can. We get in trouble for that because we're not making enough income. The schools are predominantly run by white teachers and we get a lot of feedback from them, that they're amazed that the children sit there and watch the show without moving or that they're actively involved when you want them to be. The teachers can't believe that happens. I think it's because we're learning and now we're pretty good at knowing what's appropriate, what to do and what not to do, how to get kids to do certain things, what they will like doing, what they won't like doing, and also how to get around the language barrier.

In Tracks and Clusters, a community dance project that took place in the Darwin Civic Gardens and Christchurch Cathedral, 1992, I was interested in the intimate appeal, the personal, person and place. I created a whole performance piece which was about looking for place, being attached to place, mapping out your place on a whole range of levels. I had small groups of people performing—fire dancers, a choir, musicians, the youth theatre, tiny little kids. To see the performance the audience had to travel on their own journey from site to site. We went right down into the civic area where the fire dancers did a performance about breaking down the patriarchal society, up through the trees, through the cathedral, all around, it was beautiful. For me this was an interesting way of looking at my place here. Lajamanu Kurra Karna Yani again was about place, looking at these people and what happens when you take them out of their place, seeing what their response is. We could only do that because Tim and I already had a really strong understanding of these people. Even though our western culture might at times be removed from the feeling of being related to all things, you can re-learn that.

Through large scale community performances, if someone puts people in the centre by saying 'this is your place, what do you want to say about this place? we'll help you say that in a contemporary way,' then it lives again, not that it was ever dead.

Tim and I are working on a project in 1996 where we're travelling on a particular dreaming path, a water dreaming which has not been travelled for 50 years. There are only a handful of people who know all the right stuff about it and one of them is Tim's father, my uncle. But he's dying of cancer and we don't know whether he's going to make it. We finally got Australia Council funding to take these people there, to get vehicles, because that 's why they can't get there, it's in the middle of the Tanami Desert and he's dying so it's really urgent, and you start to see how fragile some of these things are and funding bodies are going 'oh it's traditional, oh it's not dance, it's not contemporary.' But these people are contemporary and their work is still alive and valued now.

With Darwin-based groups from other cultures, where do you position your work along the cultural maintenance/cultural development continuum?

David: I've found that Papua New Guinean and Timorese groups are interested in traditional and contemporary as well. They feel it's their business to keep tradition strong, but there are contemporary things that they want to say that they can't say traditionally. The culture of groups is theirs to maintain and I can support that, but I can do little about it except to say 'yes I think it's important,' or if they think they want to show people, I can try and find performance opportunities. But my work is to find contemporary expression for them. I started a performance event where I wanted to find ways for people from different cultural groups to show their work, but without it appearing like a series of items. It needed to be simple though because we have limited resources and finances. Something that cultural groups often say is 'We want to be paid for what we do.' 'Ok, I'll find money.' 'We don't want to just be there for colour and movement.' 'Ok, we'll find a context.' A simple notion of saying that these groups of people have been called together to the Gathering Ground, gave the context. The next question was 'Why are they here?' Every group had to find an entrance, a way that expressed for them the coming to a place. So for some groups like the East Timorese people it was about being forcibly evicted; most of the PNGs came because they got married to Australian men. Different groups for different reasons. Filipinos came because of political reasons or in search of a better life. Everyone coming and gathering and then showing their work to each other. It was all in a circle, it wasn't about display out the front.

Everyone was involved and Tracks did a fire ceremony at the beginning and there was a big finale. (Gathering Ground 1992.) After this Jose Casimiro, from the Timorese group called Lafaek, said 'come and teach us some fire dancing' so I said 'yeah, I'll do that but on condition that: I a ways have a Timorese person with me who's telling me what to do, I'm not telling them; there is a translator; and that you line up a few things. I need some people who will do drawings for me, I need some people who would tell me stories, people who will tell me the significance of fire in your culture etc.' So together we created this beautiful piece. I made a huge fire sculpture of an East Timorese traditional sacred house but no one knew what it was we had made. We did the fire dance and at the end of it they all rushed forward and set the sculpture alight. The old women burst into tears, they thought it was so beautiful. This is contemporary art, contemporary performance strongly linked into their tradition by a visual traditional image. Fire was significant for them as a symbol. I said to them, 'we can do this,' and they could see that I wasn't saying to them 'I don't care what fire means to you, this is what it means to me.' It was a good coming together of community and artist.

I worked with the Filipino group Kulay Lupa, which a woman called Betchay Mondragon established. They do a lot of traditional dances from places in the Philippines and I worked with them to create a modern dance. I started with 'I don't know about your life. What's your modern life like?' We decided because all of them had come from the Philippines to here that we would make a dance about coming to this country and the differences between what it was like in the Philippines and here.

Their dances are fairly literal to them, but quite abstract to me, so we created a dance about simple things back home, how they would wash their clothes in the river and beat them and when they came here, they chuck them in the washing machine, oh bliss, thank goodness for washing machines; having to walk along the narrow planks in the rice fields as opposed to going to the supermarket. That's where I can work with people. I don't know what they ever did with that dance, it was more the workshop, the process of saying 'we can create dances' that was important.

For urban Aboriginal groups cultural survival is more important than maintenance. Community based Aboriginals tend to be living on their own land and are more in contact with their traditional culture than urban Aboriginals. The local Larrakia people are really concerned because they're fighting to get basic recognition that the Darwin area is their place, their land, their country. There are a couple of people that we like working with, that's June Mills and Ali Mills. Ali is a writer and singer. We always try, if we do a large outdoor community production to make sure they are involved and that they are asked at the beginning what level of input they want in the project. For Gathering Ground they ended up doing a fire lighting ceremony at the beginning of the piece which was about this being a Larrakia fire. They lit it and danced and sang songs and then invited any other Larrakia to come and add to the fire, followed by anyone else in the wider circle that wanted to support Larrakia people in their fight for recognition. It was a beautiful beginning for the event. To the general public it looked like the Larrakia people inviting us, even though we'd really established it. I would like that to be even more honest in the long run, where I don't have to set something up, where they come to me and say they want to do this. But the work belonged to the Larrakia people and they felt good about it. At Brown's Mart we have the administrative base and the resources to set things up. But I guess in the end I want to be redundant.

How do you see your future as a community dance artist in Australia?

David: I feel fairly solid in the last four years of work I've done, not just with Aboriginal people but also with other cultural groups. I feel that I have developed an ability to move through a lot of the cloudiness that surrounds working cross culturally and across art forms. I think that somehow I need to test this work down south, but I know that Darwin is the underground spring that feeds it. I think the most important issues that Australians have to face as a country are about our Indigenous people and about multiculturalism. Lip service is given to these issues, but we need to actually look at the reality of those things; also I need to look at where I as a person fit in. As a community artist I need sustenance, I get it from here. I need to have output as an artist, I can put that out here. I need to push and push and push the notions that I believe in.

We need to allow ourselves as a country to take incredible pride in the people we have here. Shirley McKechnie (Melbourne based dance academic and advocator for dance) would talk to me about the vast landscape inside Australia which most people who hang on to the edges of the continent consider to be empty, and the relationship of that to our cultural psyche. But it's not a vast emptiness, too big to deal with. It's time to deal with it, though the mainstream arts are not going to do that. Community artists can. I'm on about really truthful, significant work coming from this land, coming from the people of this land, and I'm one of those people. So it has to be informed, it has to be researched. This work can then support those mainstream artists. Unfortunately they get all the money when they're more commercial and can make more money.

Work on a community level may not produce money but it produces the essential culture. I'm interested in examples in the gay community up here, because it crosses boundaries. It's not about race and it's not about place as such and it's not about how much money you earn, what social strata you're in, it's not about language. It crosses all of those and yet it's still an identifiable community. So I'm interested in working at that extreme as well, from a really specific place, culture, language, community component which belongs here. I also want to continue working in dance with specific cultural groups who don't come from here but who live here now. Their culture comes from somewhere else and I want to help it survive. I believe, especially with the minority cultural groups, that you create a cultural support system for yourself and part of that support system is highlighting and celebrating what is unique and different. This immediately puts you aside from the mainstream culture, even though you're part of that, you're a subset, but it sets up these clashes and puts you aside from those things. But then you say 'I want to be accepted by this mainstream, but I want to remain separate and different.'

I strongly believe that's what our culture has to find a way of doing, not assimilate and integrate, but by saying that it's all right for a rock to be beside a glass of water to be beside a bird. You know, they don't all have to become wet, soggy, hard birds. It's all right to have these things separate, but existing together. As a community artist I'm interested in being an ambassador for finding ways of doing this, finding ways of allowing smaller groups to express what they want to say.

I love working with dance because it is so intimate, it allows you to get really close in to what someone wants to say, because their body doesn't lie as much as their mouth does. I was at an arts conference here where someone said the arts were unnecessary because you can't eat them. I made a comment about something and they said I'm different because I'm an artist—it's like I don't really count. There is that very strange notion that artists live somehow outside the community, and that they are whingers and demanders of money and they really shouldn't be supported. Huge amounts of money go into research looking for oil. I see the arts as cultural research, exploration, maintenance. Very small amounts of money go towards us, I don't feel guilty about that.

I want art to be reflective of Australia, not art as such, I want culture to reflect itself honestly. I think at the moment it's still expressing a minority or an uninformed, unexposed majority. I have to believe it's a minority view that says the white dominant culture is the best thing. If the support is going to mainstream companies to maintain that propaganda well so be it, but it's not honest art, and community artists might be seen as second rate, third rate. Apart from the fact that we are so under resourced, you spend a great deal of your time answering enquiries like 'look I'm going to fancy dress, where can I get a costume?' or 'what is the best way to black out my teeth?' The unstated motto of community arts is 'all things for all people at all times' which matches the motto 'come the end of the day it's all a dog's dinner.' People assume that community arts are there to do anything.

I want to spend my time in the community differently. I don't want to just go in and say 'this is what we are doing.' It won't be the person with the loudest voice who knows what the community really wants. What's going to come out of that community, if it's honest, is going to come from lower down. It has to. A community's strength is in its recognition and support of its total diversity—not just the top level achievers. From the psychological perspective you must make yourself vulnerable to be stronger. Go to the weaker area and you get more strength by using that weakness as a strength. Be afraid but don't let that stop you.

Funding bodies' notion appears to be that you need professional development in a particular way based on a notion that anywhere else has to provide better professional development than Darwin or the Northern Territory. But surely self determination comes into it somewhere, doesn't it? And I know they don't have to fund me, but surely they can't tell me what I should do? And they say 'we're not telling you what to do.' I'm saying 'that's okay, I don't think you owe me a living, you don't owe anyone a living.' But culture has a right to bubble along on its own course. We don't even know what the culture of this country is. It's not a thing. It's like all these things side by side that rub and vibrate and cause sparks everywhere and it can be so exciting to allow that to happen, to use that. It is about politics, it is about gender, it is about social identity. So as a community artist, it's how I look at it. I am my culture, I'm an expression of my culture and so as an artist my expression is really important. I'm blessed, working up here in Darwin, to be able to work with the range that I do of cultural groups and different ages. I could never do that anywhere else and I don't have to move around very much. Well, when I say move a round, it's about I 000 kms to an Aboriginal community and 320 kms to my closest city or town. But within Darwin itself I don't have to move around to do that. Here, in comparison to Melbourne, it's much more accessible and they talk to each other far more too!

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