Creating Pathways—a collective vision and direction for the future of Indigenous dance

In This Article

Creating Pathways was driven by the desire of Indigenous dance practitioners to articulate a collective vision and direction for the future of Indigenous dance.

This vision has been ongoing for successive generations of Indigenous artists. The cultural renaissance in Indigenous arts and culture began in the 1980s with the emergence of a critical mass of young, vibrant Indigenous artists who took to the stages and the galleries with the electric energy that is synonymous with Indigenous artists. Dance, theatre, music and visual arts emerged onto the national arts landscape with the edginess, candour, vibrancy and challenge of these young Indigenous minds, bodies, and spirits.

This was nurtured by an older generation who envisioned a future of Indigenous dance companies, theatre companies, painters, photographers, film makers, musicians and writers that would grace the national and international arena with their presence to share the gift of the world’s oldest and enduring culture. The Creating Pathways gathering of some 40 dance practitioners from across the country proved to be the most exciting, intense, inspirational event that has occurred in Indigenous contemporary dance for some decades.

Creating Pathways was managed by Ausdance National and funded by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board and the Dance Board of the Australia Council, and the Arts ministries of NSW, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory.

Since 1972 with the then Arts Council of Australia (now the Australia Council) interested in providing training for Indigenous Australians in each field of the arts, including drama, we have witnessed the emergence of those Indigenous dancers from the Aboriginal and Islander Dance School who have been trail blazers in the arts ever since.

In 1975, 28 people attended a six-week training course initiated by the Urban Theatre Committee of the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council, held at the Black Theatre in Redfern. ‘Careers In Dance’ was the first project of the AISDS, an unaccredited three-year course in dance and related fields. The efforts of an older generation such as Aunty Maureen Watson, Uncle Bob Maza and Christine Donnelly enabled the course to be recognised by the Commonwealth Department of Education at the time, allowing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students enrolled in the course to receive full benefits under the Department's Aboriginal Study Grant Scheme. Carol Johnson’s artistic directorship saw the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association (NAISDA) evolve from the Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Scheme (AISDS), successfully delivering an accredited education course.

That earlier generation of modern dancers such as Wayne Nicholls, Lillian Crombie, Dorothea Randall, Malcolm Cole, Michael Leslie, Barwoo Lanley and Sylvia Blanco with Kim Walker and Cheryle Stone led to succeeding generations of dancers such as Raymond Blanco, Cheryl Pitt, Marilyn Miller, Bree-an Munns, Dujon Niue, Gary Lang, Lewis Lampton, Monica Stevens, Jasmine Gulash, Gail Mabo and Matthew Doyle, with cultural elders such as Uncle Philip Lanley from Mornington Island and Aunty Anima Ghee from Murray Island.

Some thirty years later, under a bright blue sky overlooking the calm waters of Lake Burley Griffin, those dance practitioners gathered with a younger generation to be welcomed onto the lands of the Kamberri by Matilda House and her family at the National Museum of Australia.

The keynote address delivered by Raymond Blanco drew attention to the use of the terms ‘contemporary Indigenous dance’ and ‘Indigenous contemporary dance’ and engaged us all by inquiring ‘what does this actually mean’ and ‘when can a timeframe be placed on those works created by Indigenous dance practitioners?’

He cited works performed by Tambo as early as 1884 and noted the impact of western culture and its use as a tool by Indigenous people to highlight, communicate and promote to western society a greater understanding of Indigenous culture and its contribution. In emphasising that this event was agenda setting for the next 10 years to care for the cultural responsibilities that have been inherited, Raymond gave a glimpse into the past as a context for how far people had come.

He explored how the Aboriginal and Islander Dance School (AIDS) situated in Glebe, NSW brought forth generations of dancers who were privy to a range of influences, all the while emphasising the primacy of traditional heritage. These dancers were instrumental in the establishment of the Aboriginal and Islander Dance Theatre (AIDT) which was launched on 11 September 1989. The performing company toured nationally and internationally with an increasing repertoire of work that include Gelam, Colours, Waxy, Sanctum, Drums of Mer, Intentcity and Rain. Notably, the Bangarra Dance Theatre was formed by graduates of NAISDA Dance College in 1990 and in 1991 came under the artistic directorship of Stephen Page.

Creating Pathways explored the role of dancers as custodians and repositories of culture; the layers of meaning imbued within the gesture; the lonely journey often taken in isolation; the spirit of strength to inspire national and international communities.

While days were spent in deep and thoughtful concentration, with stories unfolding of individual experiences, where loss and grief were echoed many times with shed tears, where laughter cascaded throughout the expansiveness of the museum, the early mornings and late evenings were a joyous celebration of performing for each other, sharing dances and re-establishing old bonds.

The dancers brought forward a vision and direction that encompassed wide-ranging considerations from the personal to the collective. Each participant contributed to a broad agenda that included training, dance maintenance, cultural protocols and misappropriation, mentoring children and young people, learning and sharing, identity and place, infrastructure, choreography, responsibility and obligations, professional opportunities, networks, community social issues.

Through presentations, workshops and panel sessions the themes and priorities emerged into a comprehensive agenda that reflected the diversity of each dancer’s experience, wisdom and knowledge. From panel sessions, where Dujon Niue and Djakapurra Munyarryun spoke about cultural obligations and responsibilities, to workshops where Jeanette Fabila, Bronwyn Liddle and Rita Pryce explored dance in community; from choreographic discussions by Jason Pitt, Simon Stewart and Mariaa Randall to debates about Indigenous dance by Samantha Chalmers, Fiona Doyle and Tamara Forester, the air was thick with ideas, vision and direction. So much discussion, debate and reflection that each and every participant is to be admired and celebrated. There are so many names to mention in this article that I apologise if they are not stated. For while this event came to a close, it marked the beginning of a new future for Indigenous dancers in this country.

Indigenous dance needs to be supported for other voices to be heard in the cultural landscape. As Lee Christofis remarked ‘there is a need to build a public profile for the whole sector, for dance must be located in the imagination of its public’. The development, support and promotion of Indigenous dance is a conversation between dancers, critics, writers and journalists to articulate and explore the diversity and genres of modern Indigenous dance. It is unrealistic to expect that companies such as Bangarra are globally responsible for the telling of the Indigenous stories and that that should suffice. It is that and more.

It is the responsibility of everyone who participates in the society to understand the magnificent breadth and depth of their brief moment of existence through the poetry of the language of dance and its dedicated artists.

At the time of writing, Lydia Miller was the Director of the Australia Council’s Aboriginal and Torres Islander Arts Board.

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