Between 1945 and 1970, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander performers created new dynamic performances that took Indigenous music and dance traditions onto the performance stage.
Audiences in Sydney and Melbourne enthusiastically received groups such as the Aboriginal Theatre, created by artists from Arnhem Land, the Tiwi Islands, and Roper and Daly rivers. At the same time, non-Indigenous Australian composers and choreographers were creating hybrid works that drew on barely understood Aboriginal story, music, and dance traditions, yet reached large audiences and attracted considerable support from the Arts Council of Australia, the ABC, and the Australian Elizabethan Trust.
Using manuscripts, music, dance, and ephemera materials, Dr Amanda Harris has examined these touring performances as diverse expressions of Australian cultural identity.
Dr Amanda Harris is a musicologist and cultural historian at the University of Sydney. Her research explores intersections of Indigenous and non-Indigenous identities in Australian music and dance after the Second World War.
Dr Amanda Harris is a National Library of Australia Fellow
Speakers: Robyn Holmes (R), Dr Amanda Harris (A)
Location: National Library of Australia
R: So it’s my great pleasure tonight to welcome so many of you to this Fellowship presentation by 2016 National Library Fellow, Dr Amanda Harris, on the topic, Dreamtime to Aboriginal Theatre, Representations of Indigenous Music and Dance. I’m Robyn Holmes and I’m senior curator here responsible for the National Library’s Fellowship program. Many of you are quite familiar guests at these presentations but I can see some new faces. I want especially tonight to welcome our Director General, Dr Marie-Louise Ayres, Indigenous guests and indeed some staff from other institutions, performing artists and most particularly also our two new Fellows at the Library, 2017 Fellows, Paul Diamond – where’s Paul? Over here – who is also Indigenous but from New Zealand, he is the Curator of Māori from the National Library of New Zealand, and Gabriel Carey, Dr Gabriel Carey over there who is a very well-known writer of creative non-fiction, and it’s delightful to have you fellows, and we look forward to your presentations later in the year. Thank you.
We thank the traditional owners of the land we’re now privileged to call home and pay our respects to elders past and present. But tonight we especially acknowledge too the continuing culture and living traditions and contribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to this city, region and nation. Amanda’s topic’s going to particularly shed light on the ways in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander performers took Indigenous music and dance traditions out of the traditional environment and onto the performance stage in the period 1945 to 1970. Amanda is a musicologist and cultural historian based at the Sydney University, University of Sydney. She has a wide and diverse research background. She completed her PhD on women composers at the turn of the 20th century, -- so European women composers, European-based music composers -- but her research has continued to grow in ways that focus on gender, music and cross-cultural histories.
Her edited book, Circulating Cultures, Exchanges of Australian Indigenous Music, Dance and Media was released by the ANU Press in 2014, and her research has appeared in a whole range of journals from Women and Music, History and Anthropology, Women’s History Review and Australian Historical Studies. Partly this is because she combines her research with her employment as the Operations Manager of PARADISEC. PARADISEC is the Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures which is quite a – been a longstanding and ground-breaking national collaborative project across universities and cultural institutions, and indeed Kevin Bradley, our senior curator (but acting in another position at the moment as Assistant Director General) is a member of the PARADISEC Board. And this of course, this work has given her immense breadth of experience and interaction and contact with peoples across different cultures. It also led to her work as a researcher on an ARC-funded project that was investigating Indigenous music and, really, music history in the Northern Territory.
So Amanda was a 2016 National Library Fellow but because of this range of complex commitments had to undertake her work here somewhat intermittently, balancing this range of tasks and commitments, so we’re really grateful, Amanda, that you’ve actually come back in 2017 to present your research findings. And during her research at the Library Amanda’s really uncovered all sorts of disparate materials, she’s had to work across a very broad range of materials in the collection -- manuscripts, pictures, oral history, dance, oral history ephemera -- to bring together what you’re about to hear about tonight, which documents touring performances by Indigenous artists. Also of course documenting the better-known performances of works like Corroboree, which you’ll see by non-Indigenous composers, choreographers and performers that drew on barely understood Indigenous traditions at the time.
Bringing a depth of cross-cultural nuance and understanding to the project, Amanda aims to reveal how both Indigenous and non-Indigenous expressions of identity through music and dance intersected in the decades following World War 2. So please welcome Amanda.
A: Thank you so much, everyone, for coming and thank you, Robyn, for such a warmly generous introduction. It’s been a genuine privilege to be here at the National Library researching. Robyn and so many of the staff I’ve had the privilege of working with are just so much more than caretakers of the incredible collections here but have such a breadth of knowledge and interest in the materials that they look after and help people like me have access to, it’s really been a wonderful experience. I also acknowledge that we meet today on Ngunnawal land and pay respect to the elders both past and present and extend that acknowledgment and respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in attendance today.
In my time at the National Library I’ve sifted through hundreds of carefully preserved and indexed concert programs, read intriguing letters exchanged between arts bodies and composers, government administrators and artistic directors, looked at original scores and scripts for performances that were staged, listened to oral histories and browsed headlines and articles in that rich repository of treasures that is the National Library’s Trove portal to digitised newspapers. This process of dipping into the collections of ephemera, personal and institutional archives and lingering on some has been an attempt to understand as much as possible about the diverse and dispersed performance events that entertained the Australian public on the stages of the 1950s and ‘60s, the period directly after World War 2.
It’s a period in which identities, taste, creative opportunities and possibilities are shifting and changing and one that has been characterised by some historians as a period of identity crisis and disorientation. While white Australians had long thought of themselves as British or some colonial outpost version of or variation on British they or we started to conceptualise of things like an Australian style of music and dance. Government policy was, of course, focused on assimilation, in other words a unified sense of Australianness. For new immigrants or those with enduring non-Anglo-European family histories and cultural traditions assimilation policy was supposed to mean abandoning the particularities of cultures from many places and bringing them into some kind of harmonious sameness that could be thought of as Australian.
For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people this impetus for uniformity put even more pressure on local and regional cultural traditions, languages, music and dance with their distinctive and diverse practices. But what was this Australian character to which all Australians new and old would assimilate we may well ask? In the performing arts this question of what an Australian music might sound like and an Australian style of dance might look like preoccupied many. How could Australia be distinct and still somehow current, keeping up with modern innovations of the performing arts in Europe and beyond? In many public displays of Australian culture the factor that made visual, auditory and performance cultures uniquely Australian was an element tying into this land and to the people who had occupied it and belonged to it for so many thousands of years. Visual designs, words, melodies, rhythms and movements derived from Aboriginal cultures across Australia increasingly appeared in all imaginable contexts.
This background by way of introduction is an oversimplification of course of the many forces acting on Australian culture in the decades following World War 2, but it’s perhaps a starting point for how to think about the way broader Australia came to engage with its cultural traditions, both established and emerging. The kinds of historical records I’ve been chasing in all of the meticulously organised and catalogued boxes and folders of the National Library’s collections are about this engagement with Australian performance culture. Today I’m going to tell you about just a few of these performance events and I hope that’s not a disappointment, but - after the introduction of all the hundreds of things I’ve been looking at. But, you know, one can only talk about so much. But, through these two particular events I’m aiming to think about what we can learn about the history of cultural practice in this nation, what kinds of performative arts were chosen to represent Australian culture in public demonstrations of Australia? What did public performances aim to represent and to communicate about Australian culture and what might they say about our history? Which performers indeed had access to national and international audiences?
The promotional flyer for my talk today depicts the front cover of the program for Corroboree on the left showing a brown body of indiscriminate gender and ethnicity painted with designs that may or may not strike you as reminiscent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander body paint designs. In 1954 American dancer and choreographer, Beth Dean, famously choreographed a new ballet to the score of Corroboree, a symphonic ballet composed in 1946 by John Antill and performed for Queen Elizabeth II during her first visit and tour of the nation. Corroboree is considered by cultural historians of this period to be a landmark event as much for the significance of seeking to create a national performing tradition that aimed to represent Aboriginal culture in musical and moving forms as for the fact that its appropriation and representation of Aboriginal dance, costuming and music by exclusively non-Indigenous performers soon came to be remembered with discomfort and unease.
The image on your right is the front cover of the program for the Aboriginal Theatre, depicting a bark painting by Narritjin Maymuru from Yirrkala of thunder and spear legends, which were also performed during the performances of the Aboriginal Theatre. This performance event, the 1963 Aboriginal Theatre, also rates a brief mention in cultural histories of the post-war period however it has rarely received the same kind of in-depth attention that John Antill and Beth Dean’s Corroboree continues to attract. The performers in the group have similarly not enjoyed the long-lasting attention of the public nor did they produce multiple large productions over several decades supported by national and states arts bodies or tour overseas as examples of Australian cultural product in the way that John Antill and Beth Dean’s works went on to do for many years, even though the performers in the Aboriginal Theatre continued in many cases to be leaders in performance and cultural practice in their home regions. Yet as I’ll discuss, even if their ongoing public visibility was not that of John Antill and Beth Dean the Aboriginal Theatre received glowing reviews from the same critics that reviewed Antill and Dean’s works and they were toured by the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, the major Australian arts body before the advent of the Australia Council.
The two particular performance events I’m going to focus on are events that occur separately and independently of one another but I’m going to attempt to tie them together to think about what they tell us about the state of Australian politics, of Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationships and Australian cultural identity in the 1950s and ‘60s. Though I perhaps misleadingly have started out by discussing Antill and Dean’s Corroboree I’m not actually going to talk about that work in-depth, it was more of a hook ‘cause many of you might have heard of it but as the National Library’s collections reveal it was just one particularly prominent example of the kinds of cultural events that were being regularly staged and publicly supported in the decades following World War 2. And indeed it was just the beginning of a long collaboration between the two artists. Beth Dean later published a biography of Antill in 1987.
The two shows that I am going to discuss in some detail were both staged in 1963, the year in which Australians commemorated 175 years since the first fleet had established a colony at what would become Sydney and in which Queen Elizabeth made a second visit to Australia. To further orient ourselves in this era, 1963 was also the year that the Yirrkala bark petitions painted by the same artist among other artists whose paintings featured here on the Aboriginal Theatre program, Narritjin Maymuru, were – the petitions were presented to the Australian Government in an attempt to stop mining on Yolngu lands - a significant step along the path towards the eventual recognition of Aboriginal land rights in 1976. Canberra’s jubilee celebrations also occurred in that year, Robert Menzies was Prime Minister and audiences of the southern coastal cities flocked to see representations of Aboriginal performance from the north.
In December 1963, the Aboriginal Theatre performed to capacity audiences in a two-week run at Newtown’s Elizabethan Theatre in Sydney, and for one week at St Kilda’s Palais Theatre in Melbourne. And these are some of the publicity shots that you can see there with performers from Bathurst Island, Tiwi performers painted up before the show and a big city escalator staged shot. The performers had travelled down from Bathurst Island, from Yirrkala in northeast Arnhem Land and the Daly River region for the performances, which presented a series of songs and dances from traditional stories about the moon, thunder, spears and even a Tiwi Pukamuni burial ceremony to newly composed and created work depicting topical themes of the era, aeroplanes, cowboys, that kind of thing.
Each night’s show began with a fire-making performance in which the audience saw the darkened stage gradually illuminate with sparks and fire and the smell of burning leaves. Bit of a WHS nightmare, you can imagine. The performers then performed a series of works devised by each group, bringing a variety of public performance genres from the Tiwi Islands, Arnhem Land and Daly region into dialogue with one another. They danced – the danced performances were alternated with solo didgeridu performances, ‘though some of the publicity materials depicted a rare sight, a quarter of didgeridus.
Just down the road at the Sydney Showground, also in 1963, the Pageant of Nationhood was presented. The Pageant included the customary re-enactment of Captain Arthur Phillip’s first steps onto the soil that would later be federated as Australia and his greeting by Aborigines who are unnamed in the accompanying program. However preceding Phillip’s landing and intended to depict life before the invasion of settlers by using an Aboriginal concept about how the world began the Pageant also featured so-called Aboriginal ballets. These were composed by non-Indigenous composer John Antill. Antill’s Legends of the Waratah and Legend of the Boomerang originally composed in 1959 were presented as a ballet suite, Burragorang Dreamtime, and that’s the Dreamtime in my title today. It was danced by an all non-Indigenous cast led by Beth Dean, by then an established expert in Aboriginal dance. And this is some of the publicity, Dreamtime for the Queen. That is her in one of her Aboriginal dances in case that’s not clear on the photo.
The script for the Pageant of Nationhood tells us that this spectacle depicted Aboriginal occupation of the continent as a kind of prehistory, as a Dreamtime that would recede as the outside world encroached. Captain Phillip’s landing scene was prefaced by the following narration. The Dreamtime of the Aborigines is about to come to an end. The Great Spirit heroes fade into the dim past, the everyday poetry of the Aborigine is soon to become in fact only a Dreamtime, out from the endless sea, out from the mists of the world appeared a new spirit image, the white man.
The Sydney Morning Herald’s music critic, Roger Covell, reviewed both of these 1963 events, describing the Pageant of Nationhood as successful overall, even if it went on a little too long, if the Aboriginal ballet scenes were inevitably disjointed and if on the whole it was diffuse and often pointless. By contrast the performances of the Aboriginal Theatre were described as unique entertainment – this is also Roger Covell’s review, a different review but Roger Covell’s review in the Sydney Morning Herald – unique entertainment that brought authentic music, dancing and mime from the great artistic traditions of the Australian Aborigines to the stage of the Elizabethan Theatre, Newtown and brought them in the person of the inheritors of these traditions, the Aborigines themselves. There is no need to pretend that this is an equivalent of any other kind of theatre, this is an experience to tell your grandchildren about.
Both Burragorang Dreamtime and the Aboriginal Theatre were produced under the auspices of Australia’s key arts bodies in the 1960s, the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust and the Arts Council of Australia, the New South Wales Division. These two arts bodies managed and funded a huge range of performing arts events and built the foundation for the diversity and range of local and international cultural events that occur in Australia today. The National Library’s collections provide rich and voluminous accounts of the arts landscape during this period that are still relatively unmined and there’s a lot of potential for a comprehensive history of these arts bodies still to be written. To give you just a brief introduction to those, the Arts Council of Australia formed as a national body in 1948. It brought together arts councils across the states and territories, now known as Regional Arts Council. The 1943-founded New South Wales division was led by Dorothy Helmrich, a key figure in engaging Beth Dean to choreograph Corroboree and in touring the show around the country and again they had a long-lasting professional collaboration.
The Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, which I’ll refer to now and again as ‘the Trust’, was established in 1954 to provide a theatre of Australians by Australians for Australians. Named to commemorate the first visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Australia the hope in 1954 was quote that there would occur in the arts in Australia a new Elizabethan age as productive and inspiring as the first Elizabethan age in England in the 16th century. The Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust established national opera and ballet companies and their associated orchestras as well as NIDA, Bell Shakespeare, the Australian Chamber Orchestra and other important national companies. In the 1950s and ‘60s an incredible range of Australian and international companies were supported by the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust to tour Australia. Alongside the growing interest in what Aboriginal performance had to offer the Australian performing arts and their audiences, in this era of official assimilation policy the Trust also toured a number of African-American dance companies, for example and I mean without going into too much detail a lot of the African-American companies like Alvin Ailey became very influential for Aboriginal dance companies like Bangarra who later formed, and dance companies from around the world, especially from India.
There was – so that was a brief digression from our two 1963 shows to background institutional frameworks for performances in this area. In addition to enjoying the support of these arts organisations it’s perhaps obvious to point out that both shows also claimed to represent Aboriginal culture – I realise those slides aren’t very legible but those are the running order programs from both shows – but not only did they aim to represent Aboriginal culture, both aimed to perform Australian history. The Pageant depicted the birthplace of Australia in Sydney Harbour in 1788 – not my words, according to the program – and the Aboriginal Theatre presented the oldest Australians. And yet both performances aimed to be both historical and innovative. Antill and Dean’s enduring collaboration on modern ballet works aimed to produce or at least engage with an emerging Australian modernism or at least modernity. And the program of the Aboriginal Theatre too considered that allowing audiences to experience quote the fantasy and nobility of the age-old Aboriginal spirit places it among the greater innovations in world theatre in 1963.
Roger Covell’s reaction in The Sydney Morning Herald to the Aboriginal Theatre which contained a certain revelatory sense of having discovered something that one didn’t know was there is replicated in some of the correspondence in the National Library’s collections sent to Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust Director, Stefan Haag congratulating him on the production. He also directed the production. Like Covell, audiences seemed suddenly to recognise the Aboriginal Theatre’s performance as in fact not old Australians at all but rather, vital, living and continually and transforming culture and performance practice.
Just as the Aboriginal Theatre and Burragorang Dreamtime were produced by the same national and state arts institutions the context for both productions arose from close links between the arts and academic sectors. In the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s anthropologists acted as cultural brokers between performers, the arts sector and the media. The list of invited VIPs for the Aboriginal Theatre’s Sydney performances included a range of university and museum anthropologists and academics. So for example, Fred McCarthy from the Australian Museum, from the University of Sydney, Professors Elkin and Geddes, and Alice Moyle from the Music Department, and the linguist Arthur Capell, among a shorter list of prominent individuals from the arts sector like Beth Dean - she was a VIP at the Aboriginal Theatre performance - also Sir Bernard Heinze, Dorothy Helmrich, Russell Drysdale, and government ministers, including the Chief Secretary and Minister for Tourism.
Several of the invited anthropologists including perhaps Australia’s most prominent anthropologist and expert on Aboriginal cultures at this time, A P Elkin, not only attended the shows but wrote to Stefan Haag, the Director, afterwards in praise of the performance. Non-Indigenous creators of hybrid works also heavily relied upon these connections with anthropologists. It was common practice for composers and choreographers to cite anthropologists like Elkin, Mountford, Moyle and T G H Strehlow, as authorities on the legend, stories, words and even melodies and dance movements used in new performance works. Only very rarely were Aboriginal composer performers credited as creators of the works being drawn on in these hybrid productions.
There are then so many domains in which the tours of the Aboriginal Theatre and tours of Antill’s and Dean’s collaborations were intertwined, use of the same sorts of venues, support from the same arts bodies, audiences constituted by the same crowd of performing artists and ethnographers and yet the possibilities for coordination, access and freedom of movement were vastly different between these groups. Dean and Antill’s multiple collaborations on Aboriginal ballets had flourished over several decades, Corroboree made several trips around the country, first in the early 1950s, first in a version choreographed by Rex Reid in ’50, ’51 and subsequently in Beth Dean’s version in ’54. Even before this Beth Dean had toured a show of Indigenous dancers from around the world, all over regional Australia and to the US, Italy, New Zealand, Canada and Mexico. Dean and Antill’s creations and the performers who staged them were mobile, transnational and even entrepreneurial in their pursuit of new audiences and performance opportunities.
To place this mobility alongside the experience of the creators and performers of the Aboriginal Theatre is to expose a stark difference however. The performing artists of the Aboriginal Theatre were leading song-men and women and expert dancers in performance genres that they exhibited, but within the legal-political framework of the 1960s, they were also wards of the state. Logistics and planning for the Aboriginal Theatre tour and permission for movement were arranged, not by the performers themselves but rather through a series of negotiations between Stefan Haag for the Elizabethan Theatre Trust and welfare officers of the Northern Territory administration, Harry Giese, the Director of Welfare and Ted Evans, the Chief Welfare Officer. On the ground working with the performers were District Welfare Officers like Bill Gray whom I recently was lucky enough to meet with here at the Library and hear some of his stories about the rehearsals of the Yirrkala performers before they travelled down to the south and his deep appreciation of the music and dance practices and his enduring relationships with the people with whom they had originated and continued.
Government welfare administrators were the first point of contact for arranging prospective tours of the Aboriginal Theatre and it was the senior administrators who made judgement calls about how the performers from the tropical regions of Arnhem Land, the Tiwi Islands and Daly River region might cope with the climate of the south rather than the artists themselves making these decisions. A US tour that was proposed didn’t go ahead out of concern for how the Aboriginal performers would cope with winters in the United States and there were other tours as well that were not pursued out of concern about the impact of taking the Aboriginal performers away from their areas of residence.
The actual cast of the Aboriginal Theatre was also in no way fixed and drew on groups of performers from different parts of the Northern Territory and Torres Strait at the whim of the organisers and according to what kind of spectacle was deemed most suitable to the event. Stefan Haag would attempt to revive the idea to tour the Aboriginal Theatre in Australia and abroad again and again in subsequent years but only a few further performances resulted including a financial failure featuring dancers from Beswick as part of The Pageant of Asia during the Sydney Trade Fair in 1965. Oh, I skipped this slide of Beth Dean touring her Indigenous dancers of the world performance with – the Aboriginal dancers are at the top and down the bottom are a range of other, Māori, Native American and Aztec dancers.
So, ‘The Pageant of Asia’, which I mentioned, was at the Sydney Showground in 1965. It wasn’t a success in financial terms, it was nevertheless quite a fascinating show in which a map of the world was sketched on the Showground itself and the performers who were brought from all – not all parts of the world but mainly the Asia-Pacific – were placed on the appropriate parts of the maps in order to initiate the performances. I’m not really sure if they all performed at the same time in their different bits of the map; I presume not, but anyway it was a pretty interesting idea. The Aboriginal Theatre also then participated in the Darwin Festival in 1966 and the Perth Festival in 1967 with performers from Yirrkala and Bathurst Island again.
The minutes of the Board meeting of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust in 1964 included a discussion of whether the show should be altered to be more theatrical and less anthropological. Stefan Haag argued that the theatricality of the work could be enhanced without compromising the authenticity of the performances but these discussions hint at the reluctance to regard the performances of Aboriginal culture as modern as opposed to anthropological and therefore in keeping with the aims of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust to produce theatre that was rich and innovative enough to approximate the new Elizabethan age that had inspired their formation.
The flow-on effect of this can be seen in choices made about the kind of music and dance that should represent Australia on international stages. In 1965, the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust proposed the Aboriginal Theatre as a potential representation of Australian culture on the program of the Commonwealth Festival in London. To Stefan Haag’s disappointment, the Aboriginal Theatre was rejected. This decision was not made on purely aesthetic grounds, as a choice of one preferred art form over another but rather was a decision to promote and support European Australian cultural forms over Aboriginal forms. As Stefan Haag related to Ted Evans in a 1964 letter, government circles have expressed the doubtful wisdom of the Aborigines being the major contribution to the Commonwealth Festival in that it would tend to suggest that there is no cultural achievement in Australia other than the Indigenous one of the Aborigines. Hence it was felt that initially at least preference should be given to orchestras and theatrical companies, a defensible point of view, I think, even though you and I and many others will be disappointed.
We can read the cultural anxiety in this statement, then in the fourth decade of the assimilation policy. We can see the eagerness to present a unified Australian identity and one that mapped onto a European performance medium. Haag’s account of government concern about allowing Aboriginal performance to stand for Australian culture also demonstrates that the promotion and support of Aboriginal cultural practice was intentionally bypassed in favour of the resources for non-Indigenous people to exhibit European performance genres. The musical works that were eventually selected for exposition during the 1965 Commonwealth festival included our old friend, John Antill’s Corroboree, and Peter Sculthorpe’s Sun Music 1 in performances by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. By presenting orchestral compositions by non-Indigenous composers that represented a notion of Aboriginality, Australia could demonstrate its cultural achievement as distinct from Britain but also as not just as Aboriginal in the terms of this discussion, distancing themselves from other British colonies in the Commonwealth whose native traditions had not successfully been replaced by hybridised European ones.
Antill’s Corroboree was now almost 20 years since its premiere and Peter Sculthorpe would go on famously to be Australia's most prominent national composer, a reputation based on his creation of what some listeners think of as a uniquely Australian style, many of his works using melodic material derived from Elkin’s recordings of Aboriginal song from central Arnhem Land and the use of string instruments to imitate Australian birdsong. Sun Music 1 precedes this turn in Sculthorpe’s style and draws on Japanese Noh theatre traditions rather than Australian ones but in its integration of Japanese music into a European classical format, its use of experimental notation and repetitive rhythms the work was felt to represent an emergent Australian cultural identity in a way that the Aboriginal Theatre’s performances apparently did not.
Sculthorpe’s subsequent success as Australia’s leading national composer has been complicated by ethical questions around appropriation of Aboriginal melodies, stories and words in his works, which attracted considerable scrutiny in the late years of the 20th century and resulted in some changes in his approach to composition late in life. Of course, Australian art music history in the 20th century and even in the 21st is a success story for composers whose music claimed to represent Aboriginal music or to evoke the sound of the Australian landscape and its people. The idea of representing a sense of Aboriginal culture persists in Australian art music in which prominent composers like Ross Edwards allude to his music being infused with the rhythms and drones of Australia or composer Colin Bright who discusses his music as attempting to articulate what he thinks about as the stasis of the landscape that he thinks is encapsulated subliminally in Aboriginal music. Or the emerging composer, Katia Beaugeais, who in her 2016 composition evokes didgeridoo-like vibrato, sounds to symbolise cultural significance and spiritual atmosphere.
While these questions around appropriation and representation have attracted considerable attention among composers the cultural history of the early years of post-war Australian performance suggest that the implications of cultural representation are deeply embedded in politics and history. In this context the decision to exclude the Aboriginal Theatre and their expert renditions of long-established performance traditions and newly created works from – to exclude these from Australia’s contribution to the 1965 Commonwealth Festival in London takes on a weighty historical significance. That vital and transforming Indigenous performance practice continues to survive and indeed flourish in spite of these attempts at erasure from the national story is something to be wondered at and celebrated and if we let it, an understanding of this history can lead those of us who are non-Indigenous Australians to reflection on the practices of our ancestors in public events like the Pageant of Nationhood.
While Antill and Dean’s creations are now rarely performed, the musical forms toured with the Aboriginal Theatre continue to enjoy a vibrant performance practice today, at least in their home communities. The pictures here are one of the performers in the 1963 Aboriginal Theatre, a leading djanba and wangga performer, Frank Dumoo. These photos were taken almost 30 years after the Sydney and Melbourne performances and thanks to Linda Barwick for these images, which were taken by Mark Crocombe in Wadeye. Frank was in his 50s in that dancing shot where he’s – I don’t know how high off the ground.
As we know, subsequent decades saw monumental changes in how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people came to interact with government bodies, Australian law and arts and cultural institutions. 1965, when Haag was trying to organise tours of the Aboriginal Theatre to America was also the year when in February Charlie Perkins organised the Freedom Rides - I knew what the end of that was just in ca – yeah - when Charlie Perkins organised the Freedom Rides, travelling around regional east coast Australia to highlight discrimination and segregation.
The 1967 referendum removed discriminatory references to Aboriginal people in the Constitution and the various efforts of community members like those behind the Yirrkala petitions led to the Aboriginal Land Rights Act of 1976 and Racial Discrimination Act of 1975. Cultural institutions shifted dramatically in the 1970s as well. NAISDA, founded by African-American Carole Johnson, increasingly became an Indigenous-run organisation and was formative in the birth of Bangarra Dance Theatre. A fantastic oral history with NAISDA’s current CEO, Kim Walker, in the NLA collection gives a rich picture of the early days of those Indigenous dance organisations in formation. In contemporary Australian art or classical music, it’s only very recently that genuinely collaborative works between non-Indigenous and Indigenous composers and musicians have started to appear. And Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander composers have made some inroads in the classical music sphere.
As a short postscript, the Fellowship at the National Library has allowed me to unearth some of the documentary evidence of tours of the Aboriginal Theatre and other touring groups that populated the Australian cultural landscape at this time. Nevertheless, there is much about Aboriginal performers in the post-war era that remains to be discovered. I spoke today about the documentation we have of the Pageant of Nationhood but who the Aborigines were who greeted Phillip on the beach in this re-enactment of the landing and what they performed in response to his remembered arrival is not known, to me at least. Future work will hopefully reveal a richer picture of the two performances I’ve discussed today including film footage and audio recordings that were made.
The tours of the – the tours of Aboriginal performers that existed alongside the well-documented tours of non-Indigenous performers are stories that remain to be told on any large scale so there is much work to be done but we are fortunate indeed to have resources like the National Library of Australia with its expert team of passionate, engaged librarians and the support for research into the rich collections of Australian history. Thank you.
End of recording