Thirteen years in reflection – looking back through time with Waangenga Blanco

  • 18 July 2019
  • Murray Island, Cape York Peninsula

From NAISDA graduate to Senior Dance Artist - Waangenga Blanco steps away from a Bangarra career spanning thirteen years and reflects upon his quest for personal learning and his deep motivations and drive as an artist and cultural man.

I take a breath and I’m proud and strong.

I’m both black and white – my mother is a second generation Australian and my father’s Indigenous. I take a breath and I’m proud and strong. I’m quite an emotionally charged person - it’s taken me a long time to get to this place. I’ve just wanted to be of service … be a conduit. My job is to educate and it’s not always on stage, it’s in real life as well. I’ve been able to educate my family (my mother’s heritage being English) exposing them to the Indigenous side of this country - the side they wouldn’t have been open to exploring without me doing what I do.

I trained at NAISDA (National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association) and towards the end of my degree I was at a point where I was going to give it all up. NAISDA was going through huge shifts at the time - it was the last years of the college being under the Harbour Bridge. I was also exhausted of the city but when I was invited to be a part of Bangarra, I remember being really excited. Patrick (Thaiday), my cousin was there, and Tim (Bishop) who I’d studied with at NAISDA and Rheannan (Port), who brought the flavour of North Queensland and Coen to the company. My partner at the time, Chantal Kerr was also in the company and I was excited to be able to work with her and travel the world with her as well.

It was a three-year plan for me. I didn’t know what I was getting myself in for! I was really excited to be in a room full of professionals - with people who really wanted to be there. The first traditional Aboriginal dances I ever learnt were from North East Arnhem Land – taught by Yolngu Elder, Jamie Wanambie; my first production with Bangarra was Boomerang.

Djakapurra Munyarryun taught us the traditional Canoe Dance (Nukurr), from North East Arnhem Land. The Canoe Dance felt comfortable on my body, along with another Yolngu traditional dance, Manta Ray (Malarrar) – that was a really beautiful experience. Hunter Page was in the work as well as Rhimi (Dean Johnson Page). Having that youthful energy (Hunter and Rhimi were still children) made Boomerang a great first work to jump into - and having Rhimi with us was really special. Russell (Page)’s passing was still so recent and this felt like it was part of the healing process for Rhimi (being Russell Page's eldest son).

Guest Artists and Cultural Consultant Djakapurra Munyarryun with Dance Artists Sani Townson, Jhuny Boy-Borja, Patrick Thaiday, Hunter Lochard-Page, Waangenga Blanco, Timothy Bishop and Rhimi Dean Johnson Page in 'Mantaray/Malarrar' from 'Boomerang', Photography Will Salter, 2005

When I joined Bangarra, I reminded Stephen (Page), David (Page) and a lot of their family of Russell. Russell had been a huge inspiration for me. He danced like a man but was also so soft, and gentle and tender in his nature both on stage and off. I remember listening to an interview of his while I was at NAISDA. He was saying he was not a technical dancer, he was an intuitive dancer. I’ve always felt the same. I’ve never been too hung up about counts or the placement of each of my limbs; I go with instinct and I think as long as you’re being true to the story you can’t go wrong. I felt like, whenever I was given a role of his, I was keeping his spirit alive. I loved jumping into his character and being the great dancer he was – trying to emulate that. When I did Black I felt close to him and those who had done it before us - Black is a real rite of passage for the men in the company. When I did Dingo, I felt closest to him – I felt like he was a part of me … but I wasn’t completely being myself (I was grafting myself into Russell's physicality).

Lewis Lampton, Sidney Saltner, Russell Page and Victor Bramich in 'Black': 'Ochres', Photography Ashley De Prazer, 2000 or 2001

I had a gap year in 2006. I did a beautifully challenging project with Vicki Van Hout, an Indigenous independent choreographer; I worked with Meryl Tankard, TaikOz and with Yolande Brown on Kaidan as a part of the Sydney Festival; I worked with Wesley Enoch as part of the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. I did a corporate gig in Hong Kong; and I toured the East Coast of Australia with a play called My Girragundji – I played the frog along with a few different characters and Jacob Nash was the set designer – fresh out of NIDA. I returned to the company in 2007 and had no idea just how long I’d stay.

Over the years, I especially loved performing the theatrical stuff that wasn’t so ‘dancy’. There was a role, Mr Ward, in a piece called Discriminate from ID (2011). This was such a recent and important story to share - it showed that we still live in a heavily racist country where we’re mistreated – treated like third class citizens. I’ve personally felt this in some of the smaller country towns, not so much in the cities - the cities are a bit more accepting. But when I go back to North Queensland or when, on smaller tours, a bus full of blackfullas roll in, you can definitely see a reaction. If someone is acting against me because of my skin colour I try not to be emotionally reactive … I just try to be a good ‘Hue-man’.

This is a point in the production Patyegarang where territorial tension peaks. Patience dissolves as Ngalgear, played by Waangenga Blanco, unleashes his anger for the ravaging of his people by the red coats/settlers. Photography Greg Barrett, 2014
Waangenga Blanco and Bangarra Ensemble by Daniel Boud, 2017
photography Daniel Boud

Any highlight that I’ve really had with the company has accented my desire as a performer to share and learn from other cultures. I used to always say going to Murray Island (Mer) was my highlight because that’s where my family bloodline runs back to, although none of my direct family have actually grown up on Murray Island, or on the Torres Strait. We all grew up in tropical Queensland.

For years I’d say, 'yeah our Murray Island tour was pretty special' - we set up a stage by the ocean, by the back of a church. That was beautiful.

Most recently, we went to India and shared a cultural exchange with the traditional Aizawl mob who live close to the foothills of the Himalayas up in the north east of India. This is something I’ve personally always wanted to do - a cultural exchange through dance. The company was split into three different groups and we shared workshops over three to four days. This was really special. I taught some traditional dances such as Gudurrku (Brolga) from North East Arnhem Land and some ‘rhythm’ movement inspired from the Torres Strait Islands. I loved learning their movement and celebrating our similarities rather than our differences – there are so many similarities between our traditional dances, like ‘pick-up steps’. Also, the use of smoke in ceremony and ochre and body paint in celebration and ceremony is very similar – it’s just a bit more extravagant over there.

It felt like the stars were all the Elders watching us; a galaxy of ancestors watching down on us and we were doing it for the land – it was truly beautiful.

I also really enjoyed going out to Lake Eyre (Kati Thanda) where we performed Terrain’s Return to Country. We kicked off the performance on the edge of the salt lake, at sunset. It’s such a small community and so it was a small audience – maybe 20 or 30 people showed up – but everyone there was so engaged. There’s nothing like being under the stars in this country. It felt like the stars were all the Elders watching us; a galaxy of ancestors watching down on us and we were doing it for the land – it was truly beautiful. I disconnected from ‘myself’ … I felt part of the ‘one’, part of the greatness of it all, completely at one with everything.

I’m of service to our culture and I will be for the rest of my life. It’s helped me gain more of a sense of identity being in this Bangarra world and I hope for my son to be able to have a strong sense of belonging and identity within this country.

This is what I hope to leave as my legacy.

I’ve just wanted to be of service … be a conduit.
Waangenga Blanco, 2018

Interview with Waangenga Blanco
Article by Yolande Brown

Waangenga Blanco

Dance Artist (Alumni)

Waangenga is a descendant of the Mer Island people, and of the Pajinka Wik people, Cape York. After studying at NAISDA Dance College, he was invited to join Bangarra in 2005. He has been nominated for many awards and won the award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Dancer at the Australian Dance Awards in 2014.

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