An elite panel of eight indigenous ballet dancers met as part of Yirramboi (tomorrow), a First Nations Art Festival, at Melbourne Town Hall to discuss their stellar careers in Aboriginal Ballet Dancers of Australia. Facilitated by BlakDance co-founder Marilyn Miller and Australian Ballet Director David McAllister, this session was history-making and long overdue.
It was a thrill to have so many generations of successful indigenous ballet performers on one panel. The atmosphere was palpably attentive and awed. Our first peoples have a unique relationship to movement, with dance being a symbolic language and means of communicating cultural mores, systems, and values.
These warm professionals ranged across age, eras, and origins, comprising current and ex-ballet dancers from Australia and abroad. They came from all over the land, from the suburbs and regional towns to large cities; from missions, institutions, foster families, and ordinary homes.
They shared with us personal reflections, and listened to each other’s testimony. Presenting a united front of indigenous dignity, they recounted their life journey in dance. Many had crossed into other mediums. They also spoke of their attachment to country and the importance of healing family ties as well as building cultural capital today.
The group was presided over by elders — Melbourne’s multi-disciplinary dancer and actor, Noel Tovey (also reprising his 2004 biographical novel-turned-stage play, ‘Little Black Bastard’, at La Mama Theatre); and WA’s Mary Miller, our first female Aboriginal dancer, who joined the WA Ballet in 1960. The generation that followed them were represented by charismatic and mercurial NIDA graduate, Lillian Crombie, and Brisbane’s Roslyn Watson, a dancer with the Australian Ballet then America’s Dance Theatre Of Harlem. Damian Smith, who, like Noel, escaped early for Europe, then San Francisco, carried the torch for Gen X, with the two younger women, Ella Halvelka and Evie Ferris, currently dancers with the Australian Ballet. Many have danced with Bangarra Dance Theatre, our national indigenous dance company.
We heard stories of overcoming obstacles and sticking to your vision, and of the hard work dance practice requires. Elements outside the studio which might have slowed less strong souls were inherent racism, local and official; strained circumstances; and cultural disconnect, which some of them suffered from. There were also light-hearted moments such as a longing ‘to dance with Nureyev or Fonteyn’, or still ‘perform in Swan Lake‘!
Each artist here is a line in the sand, a note to history, who defied social expectations. Each was duly lauded for their life’s work. Long may this tradition continue!
Yirramboi Festival is unique to our parts and significant for our region. Check it out.
Sarah W. is a dance-trained theatre lover with a flair for the bold and non-traditional performance platforms. On the street or in the box seat, she looks for quality works that push the envelope.