Rekindling tales of Australia's rich indigenous history and culture through its distinctive merging of dance and music, the Bangarra Dance Theatre left an indelible impression on enthusiasts with recent workshops in Bangkok.
ABOVE AND BELOW: Performances by Bangarra Dance Theatre from Australia.
Participants young and old were treated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander storytelling through a blend of traditional and contemporary dance and an assortment of beats that spanned a wide range of tempo and mood.
Students attending the workshop seemed very much in awe of the dance moves and choreographic drills that were picked from the group's extensive repertoire. It seemed the perfect opportunity to savour a portion of Australia's traditional indigenous culture that Thais seldom have a chance to experience up close.
A handful of artists were on hand to methodically train and help interpret the rhythmic dance styles during the workshop, which began with stretching and warm-up exercises. Afterwards, they went through a step-by-step drill to an animal hunting dance which called on putting themselves in the shoes of both the hunter and hunted. The thumping of feet and hand motions all held a special meaning that related a story. The gyrating numbers may have left most of the attendees panting for air, but upon catching their breath, everyone had a smile on their sweaty faces.
Veteran Bangarra dancer and choreographer Daniel Riley McKinley said that their theatre performances amalgamate traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and cultures, and is acclaimed for its unique fusion of contemporary dance and indigenous culture.
Their performances dazzle the audience largely because of their startling presentation and inherently spiritual dance forms which have an immense theatrical presence. The workshop showcased glimpses of their unique repertoire, which reflects 40,000 years of indigenous culture in Australia, he said.
McKinley, who lead the workshop, spoke with pride about being given the opportunity to share their culture and traditions with the Thais. Don't forget, he said, that as native Australians they have been dancing for much longer than most countries. Preserving this for the generations to come is a necessity that Bangarra performers hold in high esteem, it seems.
The 27-year-old explains: "Our workshops, or for that matter performances, are deeply grounded in our indigenous art and culture. So, it's a really nice feeling to know that we've left a taste of our culture behind with the students. We hope to have an opportunity in the near future to perform in front of a Thai audience, with all the trimmings of our traditional elements, including the lighting and full theatrical experience. Much of our dances are based on research work and hours of conversing with elders residing in indigenous communities in Australia."
McKinley, who has a strikingly calm demeanour, says it's a privilege for him to play an integral role in preserving his native culture. Being a dancer and choreographer all rolled up in one is not simple, but he seems able to pull it off with relative ease.
He admits to often going sleepless at night conjuring up dance steps for upcoming performances. There is always an element of pressure for him as the performance season nears.
"I do expect too much of myself," he said. "I am happy to push myself to create, putting pressure on wanting something to look better. Taking a laid-back approach towards one's profession just doesn't cut it for me."
Sharing what stimulates his creative juices, he adds: "I draw my inspiration from a host of experiences and things. To mention a few, visits to art galleries, watching films of various genres, reading magazines and also listening to all types of music often does the trick. Weeks after I have watched or listened to something, I get creative and the choreographer in me begins to emerge."
McKinley says being a performer takes complete dedication, and often consumes his being. When not on tour, the group members start their mornings with a variety of dances, everything from ballet to contemporary dance, followed by yoga and pilates to keep toned and ready to perform at short notice.
Another vital side to perfecting their craft is research. The team of dancers, who are from indigenous backgrounds, spend a large chunk of time acquainting themselves with residents of native communities to have a more profound understanding of their background, cultures and traditions.
After hours of listening to stories about native customs, traditions and dances, they return home and ponder what they have learned. It is during these moments of contemplation, McKinley said, that story ideas often originate for future performances.
For McKinley, whose bloodline runs through the Riley clan of the Wiradjuri people, from the Wellington area of western New South Wales, being a performer is much more than just a profession.
"As a young indigenous male who dances and creates, it is also about keeping the traditional life alive for my children and grand children," he said. "We can't afford to let our cultural history die. We have to make it a priority to sit down and talk with our uncles and aunts about the past. By gathering all the knowledge we can, we will be able to keep our cultural traditional values alive.
"Dance is a huge part of indigenous culture, it is how you pass this knowledge on to the next generation. While it is important to use modern technology to make our life easier, we have to understand that it is equally important to preserve what came before."
Daniel Riley McKinley recently held a workshop in Bangkok.
About the author
- Writer: Yvonne Bohwongprasert