Knowledge Ground: 30 years of sixty five thousand

Celebrating 30 years: a yarn with Bangarra Creatives

  • Carriageworks
  • Music, Costumes, Props, Sets & Lighting, Stories, Songs & Language, Highlights, Concept

Presenter Miriam Corowa moderates a discussion with Bangarra creatives: Artistic Director Stephen Page, Head of Design Jacob Nash, Knowledge Ground Coordinator Yolande Brown and Associate Artistic Director Frances Rings. Listen to these creatives discuss the significant cultural and creative relations that underpin Bangarra - the work; the history; the relationships; future directions.

Miriam Corowa 0:00

Welcome everyone. We're very privileged to be here at Carriageworks today for Knowledge Ground. And this is an incredible opportunity for people to step inside the inner workings of Bangarra - Bangarra of course, being Australia's premier Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Performing Arts company. And if we're lucky, we might even get a sense of what it's like to be a performer, a dancer on stage with Bangarra because, of course, that is my heartfelt dream for a very long time. Before I get ...

Stephen Page 0:41

... You look the part

Miriam Corowa 0:41

... before I get too carried away though - yes thank you very much for that, Stephen ... you're making me feel wonderful and very welcome - I would also like to acknowledge we are on Country here today. Very proud to be on Gadigal Country, Eora Nation, Country which has been supporting ceremony for time immemorial and continues to do so. We're very privileged to be here where the ancestors are still strong, and to pay our respects to their Elders - past, present and of course, that future which keeps beckoning. I'm Miriam Corowa. As you've gathered, I am Bangarra's most rusted on, supporter/fan. If I wasn't in Bangarra, then I got the very fortunate opportunity to be a professional stalker of Bangarra for, I think it's at least two decades now. So thank you for allowing me to come along on the journey. Bangarra means 'to make fire' in the Wiradjuri language, and this is what the company does better than anyone else that I can think of.

We are in the company of Stephen Page - Artistic Director, Jacob Nash - Head of Design, Yolande Brown, who has been the Coordinator of Knowledge Ground and Frances Rings, who is the Associate Artistic Director. So we have the opportunity to have a little conversation today to dive into what is Knowledge Ground. I'm going to kick off with someone who, aside from being Artistic Director, is the most extraordinary communicator I know - Stephen Page. Please do explain to us Knowledge Ground. This is an embodiment of something that Bangarra lives and breathes. Explain for us what Knowledge Ground is and what it means to Bangarra.

Stephen Page 2:26

Okay, I'll try to be really brief, but that's very hard. Thank you so much, Miriam, for, for doing this today and to gather us and for us to explain this wonderful installation, Knowledge Ground. Look, first off, it's really ... we just finished a huge Canadian tour, five weeks in through Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto and Ottawa and went into Branford, and we went to Six Nations Reservation, and we got to do workshops, and Fran got to teach and we got to share culture with First Nations' mob. You know, we were doing quite huge venues through the mainstream, through Canada, and we were able to work with venues to invite Elders. Now, the story is going somewhere ... the Elders, First Nation Canadian mob would, Elders would come, and they would say a prayer in their language and they would sing a song every night in these big, mainstream venues, right throughout our tour, and it was a beautiful First Nations black vine - word of mouth. Sure, they might have used social media, but they got and let everyone know that our stories were coming on into Canada for the first time. It was going on that tour, that it made me reflect the thirty years and made me reflect thirty years of sixty five thousand.

We just did an eight city tour as a major Performing Arts company, traveling all around this country with 30 years of sixty five thousand - close to 47,000 people that saw the show - close to 50,000 I believe - 75 performances ... not every major Performing Arts company can say and do that with a with a major, new creation.

So, 2015, Philippe Magid had been one year in his job. He's no longer with us now ... he's moved on to AirBnB and I did talk to him last week - I think they're offering him more money. But Philippe, in his five years, we had a plan, and it was mainly through development, where we thought the area of philanthropy and development and patrons, and how we care for them, and him working with Kitty Walker, and he bought his little team from the ballet there, where they all learned... They came into Bangarra and they wanted to talk about development and part of the development was 'what are some of the initiatives?' and Knowledge Ground internally - so there's two Knowledge Grounds going on; there's the external experience, you're experiencing, and then there's an internal initiative that was birthed around that time and funding came through. And we wanted to, Yolande, I don't know if you'd had Xavier then - did ... you'd just had Xavier - she'd just returned. I don't like saying retired dancers because they sit along on the Bangarra fence and they go "Hey Steven, what can we do next?" And I say, "Well, come on, let's create an idea." And, you know, they're like athletes. They're like, they're playing a grand final, every show and their bodies get to a point, but their spirit and their knowledge and their experience is very valuable to us. And Yoli,I thought straight away, would be great to start looking at our archival system.

Now, we probably wouldn't've been able to do this probably a decade ago. I think we were very fortunate to be surviving 30 years in the arts, let alone an Indigenous one. We don't take it for granted. We are the only major Performing Arts company that's Indigenous. We employ 18 full time Indigenous artists who come to connect professionally through the medium of dance, whilst they're connecting back to their heritage, and whatever way they navigate through, they navigate through - and it's through these stories. And so, Yolande, with some great archivists - technical people - I'll let Yolande tell the story. I'll stop talking.

Anyway, the birth of Knowledge Ground started internally. We had been ... in 2015, the opportunity of doing a second season in Sydney - Carriageworks - thank you Carriageworks for this week and your work and everybody else - we'll do thank yous later - but they were really wanting us to do a second season in Sydney. We do our winter season as we reside at the Sydney Opera House for the last 20 years. We do one new work a year. We do about five to six weeks at the Opera House each year and being in another space, we thought well, ok, we can we do something at the end of year.

Our first showing here was Ochres. It was 20 years. We did Ones Country. I felt the choreographic experience probably didn't work as well, because we, we were doing one new work at the Opera House. And then we did our beautiful celebration on my brother's life last year (Dubboo - 2018). And I was saying to Jake, we're getting close to 25 years around 2015 a little bit over and I said, "Be great getting to our 30 years that to compliment and to, yeah, to be a companion for the internal Knowledge Ground we - what would an installation look like? What would the experience of going into a space where all our elements and our sets and our costumes, Nick Schleiper's amazing lighting (I'm glad he was available - he's very busy), Jennifer Irwin (30 years almost, with the company ... she tells me she's been here longer than me. She probably was! That's okay, Jenny.), and, you know, obviously Jake, and Steve Francis has been with the company pretty much the same time, but anyway, was getting all the creatives together and this wonderful man who I should let talk, I should stop raving on ...

But it's the end of our 30 years of sixty five thousand, and it really just, I just ... they kept me away a couple of times - I came in and changed a few things around and they were like "get him out, get him out!". And then I came in last night, and then with the wonderful Jonathon Colvin, who's been Head of our Production, and he's realised this for Jake, and they've spent a lot of time together. I think they were glad they sent me to Canada for five weeks. But they truly, yeah, they fleshed out the, this beautiful space ... and I'll let Jake talk but it's a gift to us to acknowledge all our wonderful relationships and our cultural relationships and all those Dancers and Creatives and Culture Consultants and, all around the country, that have inspired and have empowered us to keep telling our stories, and this is the gift we're giving back to ourselves.

Miriam Corowa 8:56

A beautiful gift. Thank you very much, Stephen. This is your baby, so you care. We're all part of the family though here, aren't we? And we can share. And Jake, of course, you've had a significant role in terms of realising all of these ideas, all of these elements within Bangarra. And just give us a sense of what those elements are and how you are anticipating people will be able to experience Knowledge Ground here - this installation.

Jacob Nash 9:27

I guess in a curatorial sense, Stephen and I, you know, we've got this 30 years and we've, for Stephen and for Frances - all the choreographers, there's ah, thematic worlds, I guess, that we've explored over these last 30 years and within this space, and we're not calling it an exhibition, it's more I guess, a, um, immersive experience and you're stepping inside an arts company. It's not visual art, and it's not, we're not on stage either, so it's a new experience. And I think that was kind of a really interesting thing to explore.

But within this world, you know, we've got an historical world that we're in now - we see that beautiful smoke screen from Bennelong and this 1788 behind us, which was also from Bennelong and I think this world is about history. It's, we've got a black history, the ring behind you talks about what is Country before people are on it ... that endless dreaming. And then here, we've got a number, and that's obviously quite a date in our history, black and white. But what is that number to us?

And I think we're getting people to stand in this space and ask them questions about who we are as well ... who we are ... who they are within this nation ... and what does our future look like? I think it's a gift to us and to the people who have worked with us over the last year, but I also think it points to our future too - what does the next 30 years look like for us? What does the next 60 years look like for us? And that's a really exciting thing because you can dream about it ... you stand inside this space and you feel its power, and you go "wow, we've still got this 65,000 years of stories here". And, you know,

Stephen Page 11:12

We all look really old here, hey!?

Jacob Nash 11:13

Well, we're not lookin' too bad George! Yeah, we've got this beautiful nest here. And that was from 2000, I think, Skin - Shelter ... Peter England who sort of, you know, if we look back in our history in the visual world, and the language that Bangarra has created, Stephen and Peter created that, like, they sort of gave birth to the visual language that we now see on stage. And that was passed down to me. And so this world talks about that history, of our shared history. It talks about our cultural history within Bangarra. And then if we look up here, we see these images of the dancers that, I guess I've been on my own sort of personal project, taking photos of them in the paint up room, which is the room they paint up in, side of stage, before they, they embark on, you know, a performance. And it's sort of this. They're here, they're present, they're always with us. And it's sort of these quiet moments - the things you don't see on stage. And so that's what this sort of immersive world is.

And as you'll go through to the other spaces, you'll see the wonderful costumes - as Stephen said - of Jennifer Irwin. We see an enormous cloth from Patyegarang which talks about Country. It was created to get a sense of what Gadigal country feels like from the water. We've got a beautiful, I guess, experience and homage to David page's music, which is sort of an audio visual, fully immersive. There's a, I think, four metres high and twelve metres wide, this screen, LED, that you step inside, and this footage from Bennelong, from the Resistance clip that we've sort of remastered. And we've got a homelands house, which talks about returning to Country. And that's such an important part of what we do at Bangarra, it's sort of ... it drives us.

You know, every work we do, it's from a place and one of the most important things we can do is take it back to that place and, and give it back to community and that exchange of knowledge, it's, it's really important - it drives us; it spiritually strengthens us, and we carry those experiences with us whether you're a Dancer or a Designer or a Choreographer - wherever you go. There's also another really amazing part of this exhibition, and, which celebrates the feature film that Stephen made called Spear, and that was made in 2015. And it goes back to a work - when did you make the, Spear ... 2000? So it was, I'm sure you're all aware of Spear, the film. There was an amazing thing that Peter designed, which is a Torana, and we've got that Torana here, it's up on its side, you'll see it. And this, the film's projected onto that.

So we've created these amazing worlds that you can spend time in, and actually sit down. It's like being on Country. I think one of the best things we do when we're on Country is we sit down and listen. And so I guess we're inviting all of you, all the audience, all the people that will come in here, to sit down and spend time with us and spend time within our songline and celebrate. You know, song doesn't exist without dance. Dance doesn't exist without song. It doesn't exist without a visual language. And so all of those things sit together in this world, and we're inviting you all to come in and celebrate that with us, and celebrate our 30 years.

Stephen Page 14:46

I think also, when we were talking, there were so many symbolisms and elements and a lot of the things do reflect each other in different versions of themselves in different stories over the 30 years. And we'd like to think they're all part of one big Mother's Story and we're just creating this beautiful songline, these caterpillar songlines of these stories that are thematic and do cover quite a diverse of inspirations and they will ... you know when we first started I know we ... there's so many things, you know - the the beautiful coolamun in Artefact, and so many cloths - and, you know, and I thought it was really hard ... I sort of walked away and said "Jake you can decide - I will let you lead that". It was beautiful because he just wanted to find the right temperament and, and doing, celebrating David's legacy ... anyway. We rave on, you can go and have a look and make your own mind up!

Miriam Corowa 15:35

It's a beautiful space to experience - so many spaces within this - and of course we will also acknowledge your work, Yolande Brown, in helping to craft Knowledge Ground but also in particular, the digital platform that is going to be created that will continue to live on, even when this particular installation comes down and perhaps has another life form somewhere else, we also will have the Knowledge Ground that you've helped craft. So just explain to us what that is, what the project is and the work that has gone into that.

Yolande Brown 16:09

Well, dance as a medium is ephemeral. And Stephen had this amazing idea that we would enable the multitude of layers that go into the creation of every single show that we create - our connection to Country, to people, to culture, to protocols - all of these things a way of not only unraveling, but also making it freely accessible to anyone, anywhere around the world. And one thing that I'm particularly excited about is that these stories will be accessible by the Cultural Custodians, who have, you know, given us permission to share their deep history, and, yeah, these people all around the world will be able to, you know, take a deeper look at how set pieces like these were constructed ... the dancers who featured in these sections, their careers, they'll be able to look at the amazing alumni who have contributed to the brilliance of this company.

It's such an exciting platform and I was very honored to be offered the responsibility to carefully and respectfully dig ... get my digging stick and dig my way through this treasure trove of Bangarra history. I had just returned from maternity leave, and I'd been a dancer with the company for 16 years, so it was a great learning curve for me. And Stephen trusted me. And we got some great people on board. We had an amazing archivist who joined us and I shadowed her and would pick through the ephemera, the images, the audio-visual files and work out what should be digitised. And then I worked closely with Northmost who was the digital development team who created this bespoke, digital platform for us - one that had to honour the cultural framework of Bangarra, and really bring out the brilliance of our visual, contemporary form of storytelling. And then the curation began.

And I have really enjoyed contacting over 200 people, our alumni, letting them know, you know, that we're interested in the stories within the stories, the highlights within their time with us, their, what was important to them, what were their learnings, how did spending time on Country and learning about our deep history resonate with them and how have they carried that through into their futures? Sadly, in this country, we don't have access to a lot of First Nations' learnings - our education system is, is slowly evolving. And Frances and myself and Shane Carrol have been a part of, of helping Bangarra and Stephen, generate ways for educators, teachers, to engage with Indigenous understandings. And they're going to find this resource really valuable, I think ...

Stephen Page 19:27

And Yo, we got the, there's about, would there be five iPads with some headphones and they're on a table around the corner? And you can tap into this mapping of this wonderful internal platform. And I was laughing because, from analog to digital and, and the beautiful thing that helped guide us through a lot of the stories and information and tracking back - especially Communities and the proper spelling of language names and Consultants ... and you go right back ... and even the early 89 works, and Praying Mantis (1993), and Up Until Now ... and then seeing old photos and how they've evolved through generations, and the relations, and the wonderful statistics on those relationships.

But the big thing I thought that felt like the heart to it all, was going into David's music, because his music had all those ingredients. You know, you had language, you had the Dancer come in to speak, you had the Culture Consultant. He'd make the wet season sound like it was coming from a very long distance. There's no, you know ... and it's beautiful that you kept coming back to me and going "Oh my God, I've solved it". "How did you do that?" "Oh it was through David's music!" And I thought, "wow, that went full circle", and the cycle of the ... and you know, like, I know we keep banging on that we're the only major Performing Arts, that we're distinctive and we're unique. But we are only learning. We're only scratching the surface of reclaiming. You know, there's 60,000 more years of knowledge and we're just very fortunate we have a foundation now that can sit in this fast immediacy of the social digital world - while you try to care for the womb of your integrity, you know. And to let go of that ... it's like me, people telling me to move on, let go of here - that's like assimilating my land again, you know, like, it's gonna take time, you know, and this is, this is a beautiful form of information that really makes us reflect and strengthens us.

Sorry Yol ...

Miriam Corowa 21:33

Did you want to add anything, Yolande?

Yolande Brown 21:35

Oh, well, you know, I think that a lot of people say that art is a voice to the people, and I feel like Bangarra Dance Theatre is such a strong First Nations' voice to the people, and I'm really proud of that! And it's a collective voice made up of Artists, Dancers, Creatives, and Cultural Consultants - and that's something that all Australians can feel really proud of.

Miriam Corowa 22:02

Well, it is time now to get some insights from the wonderful Frances Rings. I've been an admirer of Frances in particular, for a very long time. And I think you bring such a beautiful presence, energy, life force, knowledge, wisdom to the company. It's right that you and Stephen sit at, you know, this point ... I think you balance each other out beautifully. And

Stephen Page 22:28

Remember when you came and auditioned for one of her roles? You wanted to be her ...

Miriam Corowa 22:34

I don't mind - I'll get my shoes off! Yeah, there's still a little part of me that thinks, maybe just maybe one day ... if I wait long enough.

But Frances, you've had such a beautiful relationship with this company, Bangarra, in so many forms and ways, and for me, I'm just curious to ask you, with this particular project, that it is such a reflective project and it taps into so many core elements of how Bangarra is as a company ... What do you think this has contributed, in terms of where Bangarra might be pivoting to next? How this will form, I suppose, a bedrock - it is Knowledge Ground - as to how the company will continue to grow?

Frances Rings 23:21

I think that when you see all of these powerful elements, these objects of significance, of history, of the past and the present, and you feel the energy, you feel the resonance, what it embodies, what it evokes emotionally, you personally - you don't have to be a Dancer, you don't have to be an Artist - you walk into the space and you're carried somewhere else. And that's exactly what we want people to feel when they come and see a Bangarra show - that they sit down, and we take them to Country. We give them an experience of Indigenous Australia, one that they wouldn't experience anywhere else. And I think that that's probably the most important thing.

The reason why we wake up is holding that responsibility and being those contemporary carriers for that, for those ancient stories that are entrusted to us. And those are the, you know, the social experiences that are still affecting Indigenous Australia, that today are, you know, there's devastating things that are happening, and we have to be in touch with that as well. And we have to make sure that people are able to access that information ... that ... they turn on the TV, they don't see that, they don't see that information, they don't see what's happening remote, in regional areas. So I think that, you know, that's just as important as, you know, being able to also speak to the continuation of culture, of language, of song and dance. You know, these, these, these objects and this immersive experience, I think, you know, the creative force, the cultural force that informs so much of what we do, and that, you know, it's, it's something that for me it's, and probably for Yolande as well, I look at that and I kind of get ...

Stephen Page 25:28

How many times were you stuck in there?

Frances Rings 25:28

It usually swings! There's this, it's this swinging coolamun in space, and it's Women's Business. And for me, I get an emotional reaction to that. It's, it's the stories of women and the stories that we, we, we hold back just as much as what we tell. And I think that that's something that, that we can be proud of, is that, you know, we know how to keep the sacred but, yet, respectfully kind of give the experience, if that makes sense. So yeah, I think that this speaks to ... I think there's a few things that we can talk about. We can talk about Yolande's, I mean, I've been on this, the digital platform, all week, collecting information, going back and, you know, doing a lot of research and stuff, and it's been incredibly resourceful and just a valuable tool to be able to access and use.

And I'm so excited that schools, that young people, that you know, people can access this and be able to get an insight into these, these performances, experiences, productions don't just happen overnight ... it's not just us getting in a room and going, "Oh, I got a great idea. you know, let's create a big ring" and, you know ... Its immense research and immense amounts of time and energy, of sitting down on Country and talking to community and, you know, being able to, for those stories and these elements to be able to come to life. Yeah.

So I think it respectfully gives some insight into that, that research, and the coming together of the Creatives to then take that research and be able to create what we see today. I think Bangarra, it lends itself to the stage but it's also, it's about experiences like this, that we can kind of ... I went into the into the sound room, and that was incredibly emotional ... to see these young people, these dancers and this current generation and hear David's voice - and David's voice and his music is the bedrock of story. He would say "you just go and create and be as abstract as you want to be because I'll carry it. I'll carry the story. I'll give you the music and it will, it will have the story in it." So it gave us a framework that we could, we could anchor into. So I think it's, it's exciting to see, to see these elements and know that they stand alone just as powerfully, that they resonate with meaning and strength. And I think it's just really exciting to see it separate from the production and to be able to appreciate them and, yeah, be proud of this 30 year legacy that we've created.

Miriam Corowa 28:45

Beautiful, thank you.

Stephen Page 28:46

And I was just wanted to say too, because Fran was talking about, you know, when this does come down, and you know, we're constantly responding to the Western system and time and, and you know, there's a fragility about this company. And there's ... the process is, is, is very fragile at times and I think it's because of the nature of relationships - being involved to tell that story. And to do one new work a year, constantly, you know, we are, we constantly get at the edge of it, you know ... and, you know, and things, explore and they not suffer in a bad way but, you know, they, they're part of the experience. And what's gorgeous as well, I think, you know, all of this and the filming of this and the knowledge of Knowledge Ground internally ... we were going to use this time to bring all our alumni back and then we thought "oh we mightn't have enough room to bring everyone around the country." But the beautiful thing now is that, you know, we move back into the wharf, our home, at the end of, you know, November next year (2020), and this is just inspired on how we carry this digital world within the decor of our space and, you know, the foyer and having access to headphones and seeing the internal Knowledge Ground on big screens, and I want these wonderful creations of symbolisms and design being reflected down there in our home.

So if you're around next year in November, you can come along and join all of those 65,000 years of dancers that will come and join us.

Miriam Corowa 30:16

There is always more. I am mindful of time. It is my duty to call time although of course, when you get us all together, we could be here for days - but we won't make that happen. Stephen, Jake, Yolande, Frances, thank you all very much for allowing us in to this space, which is a beautiful, as you said Stephen, a beautiful gift. So thank you very much for that! For all of you, please do feel free, there will be an opportunity for photos and also, take your time wandering through. As Stephen mentioned, there are some iPads where you can also tune into the digital platform Knowledge Ground. But yeah, please enjoy your time here. And thank you very much for coming out today.

Stephen Page 30:58

Thank you, Miriam