Indigenous artists challenge dance sector

The sector’s lack of engagement with Indigenous artists was initially raised by dancer/choreographer Jacob Boehme (a member of South Australia’s Kaurna and Narranga peoples who was born and raised on Kulin lands) at a breakout session exploring dance practice in regional Australia.

‘We have 30 independent Indigenous choreographers that have bodies of work. In 2010 Marilyn Miller, who set up the training pathways which has now become our peak Indigenous dance body, BlakDance, released data stating that we have 100,000 Aboriginal dance groups in this country,’ Boehme said.

‘We have 112 Indigenous festivals; we have 21 Indigenous performing arts producers; and five well-known Indigenous presenters … [And only] one Indigenous dance work being shown in Dance Massive.

‘We’ve got three panel members out of a possible 33 panellists who identify as Indigenous speaking to you. And one Indigenous curator on the [Forum’s curatorial] panel, as well as no acknowledgement of a 40,000-plus year lineage of dance history.’

His comments were echoed by Merindah Donnelly, a Wiradjuri woman and Executive Producer at the peak industry body for contemporary Indigenous dance, BlakDance.

‘I think the thing that is happening is that there has actually been strategic investment in and nurturing of the Indigenous performing arts ecology by the Australia Council,’ she told ArtsHub.

‘There’s been funding that has supported the development of this ecology, but now what we’re seeing is just so much growth, so that when we’re faced with a situation like the Dance Massive festival or the Australian National Dance Forum and our artists and producers and presenters aren’t accurately represented, we’re going, why? When we know that this exists, why are we not seeing an accurate reflection of this when we come to sector meetings or when we come to Dance Massive?’

Boehme said that one of the fundamental issues was not just a lack of representation, but a failure to appreciate the differences between Indigenous dance practice and Western-style contemporary dance.

‘It was my elders that guided me to where I was supposed to be in dance; I had never danced before in my life, at the age of 20. Previously in my teens, my early teens, I’d been sat down by my father and my aunties, who said, very straight, directly, “Right, you’re the fair one, you pass. Your job is to go out there, get all the education you can and come back and share it with your community. That’s your responsibility.” And that’s what I’ve been doing,’ he said.

‘So for me, my practice is not a choice ... Arts is not a choice; it’s a responsibility. Particularly as guardians and keepers of our stories and our culture.’

Such problems would persist until such time as the dance sector changed its perceptions and stopped trying to force Indigenous dancers and choreographers to position their work in a Western-style paradigm, Boehme continued.

‘I feel like I am being asked to respond to a question where the rules have been set out for me and they’re not my rules. They are set up, the question has been asked or put in a framework and seen through a specific lens … To name it: we are living in a dominant white colonial culture which is setting up these frameworks which I and my brothers and sisters and Indigenous contemporary arts practitioners are expected to work in, be evaluated by, and set our standards to.'

Rather than placing value on standards of excellence, Boehme said his practice comes from culture, ceremony, and 40,000 plus years of storytelling.

'These definitions of excellence and artistic vibrancy and frameworks which the work is supposed to be evaluated by? I’m sorry but I can’t; it’s not adequate enough for me to engage in; to give a response to. It’s ill-informed, it’s uneducated and it’s irrelevant to me,' he said.

As well as changing perceptions around valuing and making dance, the sector also needed to shift its approach to programming Indigenous works in festivals and other contexts, said Donnelly.

‘I guess one of the interesting things when we hear presenters try to give an explanation of their curation decisions or programming choices is … that they hold a perception that they won’t find an audience for Indigenous works,’ she said.

‘If Indigenous events like Clancestry at QPAC can attract 14,000 people to two days of programming by diversifying their curatorial models and actually engaging Indigenous people to curate what happens in those festival, and have the backing of their community and connections and relationships with their communities, which then means that the community is coming; then there are ways of overcoming the issues of bums on seats and box office return and growing an audience for Indigenous work.’

Audiences want to see Indigenous work, Donnelly said: ‘The Australia Council has research which says they want to come. Presenters, in a lot of cases, have a new willingness to program Indigenous work and are actually going above and beyond that, and are actually going “Indigenous people need to program Indigenous work”.

Donnelly added that artists have bodies of work that are tour-ready, presentable, and already well-received in Indigenous communities. 'There are all these components of the ecology and the timing is right for more Indigenous work to be in things like Dance Massive, but the thing that I guess is still an issue is the actual box office return.

'And so, you know, I think it’s a really exciting time to think about really, seriously innovative Indigenous-led ways of curating and developing audiences and it is about redistributing wealth and power, and I think the time is now,’ she concluded.


Richard Watts is ArtsHub's national performing arts writer; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R. The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, he currently serves on the boards of La Mama Theatre and the journal Going Down Swinging; Richard is also a member of the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts