With his rugby build and very physical style, choreographer Thomas E. S. Kelly prizes “ugly” dance moves, avoiding elegant leg lifts and toe points. The co-artistic director of Karul Projects also smashes stereotypes of traditional Indigenous dance: he rarely wears ochre and never has a didgeridoo on his soundtracks.
His Brisbane festival show Silence, with seven dancers, remains an overtly Indigenous work: the piece references the fact Aboriginal people never ceded sovereignty of this country, and that “a conversation about Treaty will never be silenced”, says Kelly, who maintains some of his people’s performance traditions, such as dancing to drums.
The latest Australia Council national arts participation survey, released last week, found that demand for First Nations performances in Australia is on the rise: 6.5 million or 32% of Australians aged 15 and over attended First Nations arts or festivals in 2019, up from 26% in 2016; and 40% of Australians were interested in First Nations arts, up from 35%.
But while Kelly’s company is a growing success story, many independent Indigenous dance and theatre artists are struggling for funding and autonomy, and fighting against stereotypical audience expectations and tokenistic programming decisions.
The Bundjalung-Yugambeh, Wiradjuri, Ni-Vanutau performer finds people inevitably want to compare his dancing to the style of Bangarra Dance Theatre, the only Indigenous-led Australian performing arts group out of 29 companies which are afforded “major” status – and the multi-year funding that comes with it – under Australia Council rules. Yet the two companies present “two very different styles of contemporary Indigenous dance”, says Kelly.
‘Indigenous culture isn’t static. It’s the 21st century’
Australia’s First Nations dance sector is the oldest in the world and boasts 150 independent choreographers and makers, and 100,000 cultural dance practitioners. And yet there are only two multi-year funded Indigenous dance companies: Bangarra and Marrugeku, a smaller, intercultural dance company that’s partly Indigenous-led.
And when it comes to understanding First Nations arts, Australians tend to place Indigenous performers in pigeonholes. In earlier Australia Council research, Building Audiences, keywords used by potential audiences were “dots”, “didgeridoo”, “ceremonial” and “face painting”.
“What’s frustrating is some of those tropes are based on anthropological understandings of the Indigenous culture as being static, and it’s the 21st century,” says Merindah Donnelly, executive director of BlakDance, the peak body for Indigenous dance in Australia. “We’re part of a cultural continuum. In First Nations dance, there’s experimental, there are artists with Martha Graham technique or a more classical technique, there are artists with traditional form to tell contemporary stories. There’s a total spectrum and intersection of expression, all within a cultural continuum.”
In late June, Donnelly told the Senate Select Committee on Covid-19 that there are professional Indigenous dance artists who are homeless. “They are at the top of their game, and to hear that they’re now homeless and that there’s not a funding stream that’s specifically for independent artists is quite devastating,” she said in her evidence.
Declining to name homeless artists for confidentiality reasons, Donnelly tells Guardian Australia that many Indigenous artists have found it too difficult to access jobdeeper or even jobseeker, although a silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic is “we’ve heard a lot of artists appreciate the ability to reflect and slow down”.
In August, Australia Council released research into First Nations dance and theatre, based on interviews with 45 dance and theatre makers. The report called for greater self-determination in Aboriginal arts and more Indigenous-led companies. It found Indigenous artists are often forced to self-fund development of their works to get them stage ready for the growing demand at festivals, but they still faced stereotypes to break down audience barriers.
Programmers sometimes saw Indigenous works as too risky, and created competition through “tokenism”, such as limiting to “one First Nations work per season”.
Sydney-based Wiradjuri choreographer and dancer Vicki van Hout’s show plenty serious TALK TALK involves her satirising Welcome to Country ceremonies and playing a character who “uses ochre as a crutch”. It won two 2020 Green Room awards after being staged at Arts House Melbourne and Carriageworks in Sydney.
Van Hout “questions art as a commodity” in her work, without saying whether it is good or bad. “I was looking at this whole thing about audiences not recognising it as an Aboriginal work unless I’ve got the ochre on,” she says.
But Van Hout says one major festival director who saw the production told her afterwards people might not be ready for her show. “He said something about, people aren’t ready to let go of narratives about displacement, and narratives of wounding.”
‘The money’s handed out through a white filter’
The August survey also pointed to concerns that, without a national Indigenous theatre company, public perception of First Nations performance are more skewed to dance.
Melbourne-born Meriam/Gu-Gu Yimidir playwright and author John Harding is a life member of Melbourne’s Ilbijerri theatre company, which turns 30 this year and is the longest established First Nations theatre company in the country. Aboriginal theatre gets much bigger audiences than it did 20 years ago, he says.
“Ilbijerri is just as a big a performing arts company as Bangarra in terms of the cultural footprint, the effect, the impact,” says Harding. “So why aren’t we a major performing arts company? What criteria are you using here? They’re [the Australia Council] using a white filter. That’s what we’re always up against, because the money’s handed out through a white filter. If you asked every elder in Victoria, ‘What’s a major performing arts company?’ They would say, ‘Ilbijerri, of course’.”
Brisbane-based Kamilaroi, Kooma, Jiman and Gurang Gurang artist Richard Bell will be recreating Canberra’s famous Aboriginal tent embassy at Brisbane festival, having toured it around the country and presented it at the 2019 Venice Biennale. He plans to take it to the TATE Modern in London in 2022, hoping it will spark a Treaty conversation.
In 2002, Bell wrote a much-quoted essay, a theorem that Aboriginal art is a “white thing” – meaning Indigenous art has been commodified by white people. He feels the same way nearly 20 years later: “I haven’t seen much evidence to the contrary,” he tells Guardian Australia.
Bell’s original proposal for the Venice Biennale – to wrap the entire pavilion in chains – was rejected; instead, he chained up a replica, placed it on a barge and sailed it into the Venetian lagoon. The sight of the pavilion sailing away was satisfying, he says.
Meanwhile, Bell warns people not to underestimate the dot art of the desert, nor dismiss it as stereotypical.
“Those paintings could be seen as assertions of Aboriginal sovereignty, a sort of political marker,” he says. “It is definitely the biggest thing that’s come out of Australian art, dot painting. It’s massive.” The works speak to the present, too: “It’s acrylic on canvas. I don’t think there’s anything more contemporary than that.”
Source: The Guardian