"It's an indescribable loss when people have had their connections to their history and their ancestry taken from them."
1. Rites, 1999
I finished uni at the end of 1998 and I sent Stephen my showreel. Then he phoned me and asked if I could join Bangarra. My dream job! I had two weeks to organize everything for the big move to Sydney, the first time I had moved away from home.
On my first day at work as I approached the studio I heard the sound of Djakapurra Munyarryun playing yidaki and singing. He loves singing in the morning – it keeps him connected to Country. The sound of his music would sweep through the entire building. It was surreal and amazing.
The first major work I learned with the company was Rites, which was a collaboration between Bangarra and The Australian Ballet. It was a challenge, I think, for the ballet dancers to let go of some of their training and embody a new physicality. They were learning about our connection to land, and how grounded our movement is compared with their gravity-defying lightness and buoyancy. What was it like to be magnetised into the earth, to be like a lizard, to be like a creature, an Earth Spirit born of the soil?
The combination of The Australian Ballet’s masterful training with Djakapurra's incredible knowledge and Bangarra's sculpted cultural grounding, that is such an exciting meeting place, and that's the magic of Rites.
Mathinna tells the tragic, true story of a young Tasmanian Aboriginal woman's short and tortured life. I played Lady Jane, the wife of Tasmanian Governor John Franklin who came to Australia in 1837. Lady Jane was an incredibly strong, intelligent and outspoken woman for her generation, with a lot of political influence over her husband.
I did a lot of research in developing my interpretation of Lady Jane. Stephen gave me the space to go away and think about my character and develop some of the key movement patterns and motifs for the role.
A huge percentage of our Indigenous people are affected by the Stolen Generations and forced assimilation. It's an indescribable loss when people have had their connections to their history and their ancestry taken from them. I have had to go to great effort to learn about my Bidjara culture; the dances that my great-grandmother knew, the language she spoke, the stories of my Country.
At the same time, I have Celtic bloodlines. I'm a real mix of both sides of the story. When I researched Lady Jane's character, to bring her to life, I had to see her as really believing in what she wanted to achieve, shaped by the cultural tenets of the time.
It's such a complex journey to have on stage and for me personally, it’s one of the most amazing pieces to perform.
Over the many years, I've forged beautiful friendships with Djakapurra's family in North East Arnhem Land. I've been on cultural exchanges up to Yirrkala, Dhalinybuy, Bremmer Island and Yalangbara. I feel honoured to have been adopted into the Munyarryun family; the Yolngu kinship system.
We began filming Spear on country in Djakapurra's backyard, his homeland. Something really special about that place is the morning fog. Years ago, Djakapurra's family gave me the Yolngu name Wakalungul, a word or name which describes the early morning fog that dances on the spider webs. I love the traditional dance that encapsulates this and wraps it into the Yolngu songlines. This dew looks like spider-threaded jewels suspended through the trees and all over the earth. We filmed one of my scenes in Spear at break of day drawing the magic of the wakalungul into the film.
As a contemporary dancer, you’re trained on a plastic floor, then you go out bush and you're on the earth. Your feet have to reawaken, toughen up and grow new thick skin. We were filming early one morning and I didn't have my glasses on and all of a sudden I felt as though the earth was throbbing. I looked down and there were thousands of baby frogs jumping up and down and all over my feet.
I was pregnant with my son Xavier in the studio scenes. It's not just you performing, it's you and your little baby, getting to know each other while you're telling stories. It's storytelling, right from the beginning.
There are all these lines about family connection, to the future and the next generation and your ancestors. That's what I find so significant about Spear.
"Your feet have to reawaken, toughen up and grow new thick skin."
Interview with Yolande Brown
Article by Maura Edmond