"What I really loved about the early creation period of Ochres was it felt like we were developing a new form."
What I really loved about the early creation period of Ochres was it felt like we were developing a new form. I couldn't wait to get into the studio. Each day was like "What are we going to do? Where are we going to go today?" It felt like we were going to change things.
Bernadette and Stephen empowered us and challenged us. You have to understand, back then, they were really hard on us. There was this real sense of discipline. They would let you know if you weren't doing it right, and we'd just do it and do it and do it until they were happy. Bernadette has her own way, Stephen has his own way, but they set the bar very high. When you get pushed to the limit and you reach the edge… you just have to jump.
I think the recognition overwhelmed us. We weren't expecting that, at least I wasn't. We were in a little hall, wooden floor (no Tarkett), minimal budget, simple costumes, but everyone involved contributed their stories, their experiences, their cultural backgrounds, their socio-political backgrounds, all of it unfolded into that work. I feel like our DNA went into Ochres.
Brolga is a story about two worlds; the contemporary world and the cultural world, and this girl's experience straddling both.
It was amazing to work so closely with Stephen, with David, Russell and Djakapurra. We had an innate understanding of how each other worked. Stephen would talk, I'd respond, Russell would respond. We'd just work together, build, grow, explore. It felt effortless because we had a vocabulary that was built up from Ochres (1994). It was great, being able to really push the parameters of those bonds, and those relationships, and that trust that you've built up over so many years.
I played the lead character, the girl. I started off each night with Djakapurra on stage. Each night we'd lay there for ages in the dark. He just has this presence and this energy, this protective power. We opened at the Opera House and I was really sick. I didn’t know how I was going to get through the show. But I looked at Djakapurra and I thought, "No, I'm going to be fine." I can't remember that performance. I went somewhere else. But sometimes you just have to do that, and allow those around you to carry you.
Rations was my first mainstage work for Bangarra, part of a double bill called Walkabout. It was based on the colonial practice of handing out rations to Indigenous people. They were handed out for many reasons, for religious purposes, for assimilation, they were handed out to clear the lands, to get people off Country. I guess it was a seduction, a Western seduction, which made it very hard to return to a cultural practice of living off the land.
My connection to South Australia and its history has always been an inspiration for me. I wanted to find out more about my mother's background. I think for a lot of her generation, they didn't like to talk about that experience very much.
Rations was the first work that I wasn't in. It was hard for me to sit back and watch it critically. I felt very naïve. Stephen had given me this opportunity and placed this trust in me and I didn't want to let him down. At the same time, with your first work there's no pre-judgment. You haven't received reviews or critiques. You’re more willing to just go "Okay, let's just try this." It allowed me to find out what my aesthetic was, what my style was.
We go back to South Australia, to my mother's Country, and the Country of much of my family – Maralinga – where in the 1950s and 60s the Australian and UK Governments had done atomic testing on Aboriginal land.
They removed people off Country, for the atomic testing, and moved them all the communities of Ooldea and Yalata. It was hard to go back and hear Elders share their stories with me. Some of them aren't alive today. My father had shared stories too, from when we were growing up in Port Augusta.
When your family give you a story, that's a different responsibility. I was a new mother too. I remember going in and doing rehearsals and I'd have to pop out and breastfeed, then hand the baby over and go back in again. I felt very exposed and very vulnerable, and maybe a bit overwhelmed. It was probably lack of sleep as well!
This story was particularly important to me. It happened in our own backyard and it's not taught in high school. One of our responsibilities in Bangarra is to tell these stories. It's not to make non-Indigenous Australians feel ashamed of their history, it's about acknowledgement.
"One of our responsibilities in Bangarra is to tell these stories. It's not to make Australians feel ashamed of their history, it's about acknowledgement."
Interview with Frances Rings
Article by Maura Edmond
Frances Rings joined Bangarra in 1993, and in 2002, made her choreographic debut with the company with the critically-acclaimed Rations. Frances has gone on to create many more award-winning works for the company and was appointed to the position of Associate Artistic Director in 2019. In December 2021, Rings was announced as the next Artistic Director of the company, after Stephen Page steps down from the role in 2023 after 32 years.Explore profile