Speakers: Rebecca Bateman (R), Rhianna Patrick (RP), Tammi Gissell (T), Yolanda Lowatta (Y)
R: Yama, everyone, welcome to the National Library and to our first ever Deadly Dialogue event. I’d like to start off by acknowledging the first Australians, custodians of the land that we’re on and the land that everybody is on via livestream who’s tuning in tonight and to pay my respects to elders past and present and through them to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Allow me to introduce myself, I’m Rebecca Bateman, I’m a Weilwan and Gamilaroi woman from north-west part of New South Wales and I’m the Acting Director of Indigenous Engagement here at the National Library.
I'm thrilled to welcome you, everyone here in the room and everyone online to Deadly Dialogues. This is the first in what is a series of three Deadly Dialogue events exploring firsthand experiences from first nations performing artists. Deadly Dialogues is a new series of in conversation-style events which is an extension to the current exhibition, On Stage: Spotlight on Our Performing Arts exhibition. It’s a celebration of performing arts in Australia.
Deadly Dialogues is a chance to hear firsthand experiences from first nations performing artists that have told stories on stage through everything from body language to the oldest living languages in the world. With On Stage showcasing musical scores from Pecan Summer by Deborah Cheetham, posters and portraits this is a wonderful opportunity to hear from the people behind those objects. We’re really privileged tonight to have three deadly First Nations women here to share their experiences with us, First Nations performers Tammi, Tammi Gissell and Yolanda Lowatta and to bring the yarn together, media professional and presenter, Rhianna Patrick.
Just a bit of introduction to the three ladies so let’s go from over there first so Yolanda, Yolanda is a Geidei woman with Torres Strait, Papua New Guinea and Fijian heritage. During her four years with Bangarra Dance Theatre Yolanda danced nationally and internationally. In 2016 she was awarded a Helpmann Award for the best female dancer in dance or physical theatre for her performance in Sheoak, an incredible accolade and testimony to Yolanda’s talent for telling story through dance.
Yolanda recently choreographed and performed her own solo named As I Am in the 2022 Bold Festival along with a workshop in Torres Strait Contemporary Dance and has done some roving work with Little Dove Theatre Art and Australian Dance Party.
Tammi, Tammi is a Muruwarri woman from out my way, we’re neighbours. She was born in her words out the back of Bourke in northwest New South Wales. Tammi is the Collections Access Co-ordinator of First Nations at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Sydney, the former Powerhouse Museum. She’s also a performer, poet, performance theorist, choreographer, researcher and critic, having performed, lectured and consulted regionally, nationally and internationally across the spectrum of contemporary and contemporary indigenous performance since 1996.
Rhianna, Rhianna is a Torres Strait Islander woman who has connections to Mer and Mabuyag clans of Torres Strait. Rhianna is a media professional with extensive experience. She spent nearly two decades at the ABC working across news and television documentaries and presenting national radio programs. In late 2020 Rhianna joined IndigenousX as its head of audio and podcasts and launched IndigneousX’s first podcast series with Black Nation. Black Nation is a First Nations voice discussion or rather series of discussions about what it’s like to be a blackfella in arts. If you haven’t listened to it do yourself a favour.
With her strong passion for indigenous-controlled media and self-determination in the arts there could be nobody better to bring this conversation together for us tonight. So please join me in welcoming Yolanda, Tammi and Rhianna, let’s yarn.
RP: Thank you so much, Rebecca. Just as a Torres Strait Islander woman I too would like to acknowledge the land on which we’re gathering for this conversation. I have spent my entire life growing up on the land of Aboriginal nations, very – multiple different nations and I too recognise that as a visitor I do my work and I live on land which is not my own or that I have no blood line to so I just want to acknowledge that.
I was really excited to do this conversation because I’ve been a fan of both of these two women for such a long time and I think dance is one of these mediums that can transport you in a way that allows it to be done without words but I think the voice of dance is really the dancer and then the movement from that is really the language. I have always loved dance but I also understand that it’s more than that which I know that we’re going to get into tonight and I think it’s also about the intention in how you do those moves, the placement of where those arms, legs, heads, sometimes eyes are. It's even in the way that you carry yourself across a stage from one side to the other and how you do that. Even the movement of say an arm, raising an arm can say so much. Even when it might be such a small thing it can say volumes that I don’t think even the dancer could describe themselves and it’s one of the things that I’ve always loved about dance. Tammi, I guess, would you like to acknowledge country as we’re all here from different parts of the country as well?
T: Yes please, absolutely. As you know my name is Tammi Gisell, I'm actually a Muruwarri woman so again I’d like to really reflect that this is not my blood country and so I do want to acknowledge traditional owners from where we are today. I actually work on Gadigal land but I live on Bidjigal land in Sydney as well so I just want to acknowledge where we are today and where we’re meeting and thank us for having us here.
Y: Hello everyone, I’m Yolanda Lowatta. I, like the lovely ladies here with me, I’m a Geidei woman, I live here on Ngunnawal Ngambri country and I live here – I live here and I work here but I’d also like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal Ngambri as the traditional custodians of this land where we’re working, where we’re gathered here today. Thank you.
RP: I wanted to get an idea of I guess what younger Tammi and what younger Yolanda were like and where this dance journey really starts so Tammi, I’m going to start with you because I feel like we’re of a similar generation and we have had these conversations today actually where we’ve realised we are very much the older people here and our experiences – we remember a time before the internet as it were but for you in getting involved in dance how did you get involved in dance?
T: I came to dance – formal dance training when I was 11. I used to put notes in the neighbours’ things, I will dance for you, 10c a family or 5c each and would go and dance in the neighbours’ houses until Mum got cranky that I was inviting people to our home to perform so she sent me off to dance lessons so that was the jazz. Then I’m one of those people that came out of Dubbo Ballet Studio and I was also trained by Doreen and Virginia Thompson from Thompson Dance Academy so I came out of Dubbo jazz, tap and ballet girl and come up very much through that very western way of training with dance up until I was about 18 and then I jumped on a bus with $3.25 in my hand and I was going to audition for Dance Encore and I - very, very fortunately Bruce and Lesley Scott took me on and they shaped me from there from 18 so very much out in the bush just taking jazz, tap and ballet lessons as much as I could, I was just trying to take everything in, trying to take everything in.
RP: So what was the place of dance in your family?
T: Everybody danced. My mum was actually a Latin and ballroom dancer so she – we always danced but I used to just take over. No, you sit down, come on, no, I knew what I'm doing, watch this. I think I took it a little bit more serious and I always had a feeling that there was something in me that - I was like I know you’re feeling the music too but I’m really – I'm feeling it, man so there was something very important. I always felt like there was something important in the dance. I didn’t know what it was and it really wasn’t until I was 25 that I went oh penny dropped, this is actually bigger than making shapes in space, something deeply, deeply spiritual and personal.
RP: Yolanda, what was little Yolanda like? How did you come to dance?
Y: I came to dance very late. I didn’t start dancing until I was 18. I used to do traditional dancing growing up my whole life but my first formal dancing was when I was 18 and I went to a performing arts school in Brisbane called ACPA, the Aboriginal Centre for Performing Arts and that’s where I did my first ballet class and freaked out and wore socks and basketball shorts. It was shocking.
RP: So you mentioned there growing up with traditional Torres Strait Islander dancing so obviously dance had a very important place in your family. I guess what was that education like, of learning Torres Strait Islander dancing?
Y: It was amazing. It’s hard to put into words, it’s like when you grow up doing something and that’s just a part of your life it’s not anything different, it’s just a part of your life, that’s what you do. Yeah, it’s like drinking water –
RP: You go to school, you come home, you dance, yeah, it’s just there.
Y: Yeah. I loved it, I got to hang out with my cousins and we would have to practise really hard too and we’d have to do the movements properly because you give it the respect it’s needed, that it’s due, that it deserves so yeah, yeah. I did do some cheerleading in high school but it was filling in for other people and I guess that probably was my first introduction into – I'm going to call it western dancing. Yeah and so that’s where I learnt to count and follow other people and not sing while you’re dancing like those kinds of – I can’t be like one, two, three, four, whatever, you just can’t do that whereas in Torres Strait Islander dancing – please cut me off if I’m talking too much –
Y: - in Torres Strait Islander dancing we sing songs and dance and – even if we’re sitting down we’re watching the other people dance, we’re singing songs as well. It’s a community sort of vibe.
RP: So having had that experience of Torres Strait Islander dancing, Yolanda, what was it then like knowing that the way that you get taught Torres Strait Islander dancing, it’s very regimented in a way, there are certain – it’s done in a certain way, it’s expected that you’ll do it that way. There’s a lot of pressure in a way and so then going from that type of style to then going to that western style of how I guess a non-Indigenous dancer is trained, what did you notice about the two? Did it prepare you for that, that you were used to people I guess yelling at you and telling you when it's wrong?
Y: It’s funny that you say that ‘cause that might have been the only part of it that I was prepared for, I had - used to old aunties and our grandmothers and grandfathers telling us what to do and get down lower or put your feet like this and look here and make this sound. I was used to that but what I wasn’t used to was tights and leotards and trying to tame my ‘fro that has its own personality, those were the things that I wasn’t used to and counting. Like even though I learnt it a little bit in cheerleading I still was – it didn’t mean anything to me, I’d make sounds and I still sometimes do, I make sounds or I just imagine wind or something to fill counts.
RP: Interesting. Tammi, did you know that about Yolanda?
T: No, no but I understand what you're saying in terms of making sounds for counts and things like that ‘cause I tend to do a bit of that too [mimics sound]. That’s really interesting.
RP: Tammi, let’s go to when you start to look at this as a career. Do you remember what your first job was when you got paid to dance?
T: Yes –
RP: Oh apart from the five and 10 cent little leaflets.
T: Yeah and the hiding I got from my mother, don’t you invite people to my house. It was industrious. Look, my first professional paid work was with Dance Encore and I have to say – I mean I was 18, I came down and I did my audition and I am so eternally grateful for that opportunity because the discipline and the decency and the ability to really emotionally commit to someone else’s grand vision of what you’re doing and that for me was – I was just so excited to be in a show, to get in the show in the first place. I would have done it for free, truly, I was like and we get paid too? I think in those days it was $50 a week we got for rehearsals which was in those days – it was pretty big money ‘cause we were dancing all day but that was like your meal allowance and then obviously when we went on tour we had good money.
But yeah, I was just excited that I was in Sydney, I was in a show and we were going to have costumes and I was a part of something bigger than Dubbo and I was like I’ve made it, I’ve totally made it even though – it was the idea that I got to be on stage every day, the money had nothing to do with it. It was just that I actually was good enough to get in and that they believed in me enough to make me want to be better and they worked with me, worked on me and worked with me too. So I was aware then that it was a privilege, it was an absolute privilege to be – and I’m sure plenty of the people that are out there listening that would know Dance Encore and the legacy of Dance Encore in this country and how many fine dancers that were produced out of the incredible showmanship from that company, it really put me in good stead for life. So we were just like little Bambies trying to – and Lesley and Bruce really gave us structure and style and pizzazz and how to sell a show and it was like I get to wear high heels too.
Yeah so it wasn’t ever about the money for me, it was about I just want to keep dancing and it was like oh this is a job. Yeah, I think - actually our first dance captain actually sat us down I think probably a week or two into the tour and we kind of had a company meeting after the show and she sat us down, she said now has the penny dropped? I didn’t know what she was talking about and she said to all of you, she said this is your job, this is your job and I don’t care if you feel sick or - this is your job, you're being paid to do this and I was like oh now I know what penny drop means ‘cause the penny dropped, I went oh yeah, it is my job, isn’t it? I still was on the thing of oh I get to dance every day. So then that became very, very real, that people are paying money to come and see you, you take it with absolute – it’s serious business. So I was just thrilled to be a part of something, just to be a part of dance beyond the country and I loved growing up in the country and some fine dancing but it was like the next step, it was like okay, you can be big fish in a little pond but can you cut it with all this lot up in Sydney? Turned out I could so –
RP: I guess your mum was probably really grateful that she didn’t have to sequin anything ever again.
T: We had a good conversation about this today with the old speed tap sequin costumes. Yes, I’m sure she was very grateful once I got into the company that she would never have to sew those again but she loved to see the costumes that we were in and she’d say oh geez, I’m glad I’m not having to make those costumes. I mean Bruce used to make the most – probably still does – make the most exquisite costumes and so yeah, I just felt really fancy and really deadly and I was just like I can’t believe that I'm actually – I’m here and I'm good enough, that was a big deal.
RP: Yolanda, what was that first moment where you were getting paid to dance?
Y: So my first paid dance job was with Ochre Contemporary Dance in WA and I actually was a lot like Tammi like it was – first of all their Tarkett is red and so I was like oh this must be what professional dancing is like, you dance on coloured Tarkett. So it was a novelty in the beginning and I checked my bank and the money was in there and that was – I was like oh yeah, I get paid and it was a step up from Abstudy so – it was a big step up from Abstudy so I was happy about that, yeah.
RP: What do you think you learnt in those early years, in those first few jobs that you got?
Y: I think - so I spent a year on and off project-based with Ochre Contemporary Dance and I – to be honest I don’t – like I – yes, I did learn things in that first year but it was more just me getting over the fact that I was dancing and getting paid for it. Someone thought I was good enough to be paid for it and so I was here with these amazing other dancers who I - some of them I didn’t know and some of them I did know and I was just like whoa, we – are we – it just felt exciting to be dancing alongside someone who you’ve been watching from afar and you admire. So that – I think that was – it was just me getting used to that kind of environment. The penny didn’t drop until the next year. It was the same thing, it wasn’t until I went on tour and people were like oh my god, we get paid to do this and hyping you up and this is your life, backstage and I'm like whoa, it really is and then stepping on stage and rolling with it.
RP: Tammi, what do you think it is about dance that only really – those who have danced understand about where that need to dance comes from?
T: Could you repeat the question?
RP: Do you think there’s – for you like where does dance sit in you?
T: Oh boy –
RP: Small question.
T: There’s a PhD in that. My first reaction when you said that just fear there in your gut because from there everything comes out. From there whenever I think of the dance or when I imagine, there’s just this - that – just comes here and I guess – I don’t know but as soon as you said that I just thought this is where it sits. I’m not sure why but there’s something about – something that my mentor, Graham Watson, said to me when we very first met and he said there’s something about the way that you touch space, Tammi, and the way that you allow space to touch you. Then I think that there’s something in that, when we’re moving that – I mean it sounds almost cliched but you’re in some sort of zone, we’re not here. We’re here but we’re not here, that’s the point, I guess we’re treading in two worlds and I think anyone who’s had the joy – even if you’re in the disco, at the back of the disco minding your business, when you’re lost in it it’s a very personal experience.
I think having the privilege of being able to actually then go and share that and be that for somebody else, that’s – for me it’s the closest I’ve ever been to a sense of peace and a sense of meaning. It’s almost like I have a sense of recognition, a sort of oh yeah, I'm back here again, this is the pocket or this is the - whatever that thing is, it feels like home. It feels like home. Even when you muck it up and you do a big mistake or something you think – you're still going to go home there, you’re still going to go home, you’re going to get into bed and you’ll make it up in the morning. But there’s – it’s a hunger, it’s a hunger and it’s a satisfaction at the same time. Yeah, I don’t know how else best to say it.
Y: I think you're explaining it very well, that’s exactly how I feel too in dance like for me it sits in my gut as well and that same thing that you were talking about, you filling space and then space interacting with you. In my mind like I envision that every time I dance and there’s little bubbles and cells all around me and that I move into it and it pushes me back and there’s this dance. You just exist in it.
T: Yes, yes. That’s exactly it.
RP: So then what is it like when you don’t have that opportunity to? What is that feeling like, when you aren’t in that? Because I mean Tammi, you took some time off because you had your kids and then you came back to it so I wonder what that time was like away from that if that’s how it feels for you when you are in the moment and you’re –
T: I grieved, I grieved hard for seven years. I have to be honest, I grieved and I remember Karen Pearlman from The Physical TV, I ran into her at a shopping centre and I made this – I hadn’t really made the decision but the decision was sort of happening that it was like I’m going to settle down, I'm going to settle down, I’m going to come off tour and I'm going to be a mum and I'm going to do all this kind of thing and had the conversation. I said oh I think I'm going to retire from performing and I remember Karen just looked at me and she said and how are you feeling? I went oh it’s awful and just started sobbing and she said it’s okay. I said I don’t actually know how I feel about it. I have to say I grieved, I felt empty. I felt – it’s like someone just cut your wings off, cut your arms and your legs off because that’s all you know, that’s all I’ve ever known and I’d never imagine that there would be a point in my life where I wouldn’t be getting up going to rehearsals, being a part of someone's vision and sweating and being in a space with other people and being tired and exhausted and completely emotionally wiped out but in that building up together.
So I felt really empty, I have to say, even though god, it’s not that I wasn’t enjoying the other things that I was doing but it was tricky to understand whether it was just my ego and if I was just missing the adoration of strangers because there is a part of that and of course when that light hits you and you’re – there’s a sense of coming home. So I really battled with oh is it just my ego and maybe all retired performers go through this? But then I just realised no, I’m not ready to finish, man, I got so much more that I need to say and do so it was definitely a sense of – it was a grieving. I felt as though I’d lost a really integral part of who I was so the mind kept going and you would have little quiet moments of personal revolution where you’d zip off and have a little secret dance somewhere and just think I’ll be back, I’ll be back, I’ll be back.
But it was very tricky, very tricky to actually allow myself to just try and get back in there and I remember when I was in the space then where I could be like right, I’m going to take ownership of this again I was terrified, even just to do a spinal roll, the tears that would come because I felt man, when I actually dance again I’m going to burst into flames ‘cause I got seven years building up. It was really hard to try and figure out how to – I would never ever want to be like that ever again, yeah.
RP: Yolanda, you’re nodding a lot over there. I feel like you’re getting a little emotional listening to Tammi –
T: I’m getting emotional, yeah.
Y: Yeah, emotional is the word.
T: ‘Cause you’re probably in it now maybe.
T: I said maybe stepping off –
Y: No, exactly, I definitely didn’t have seven years off of dancing but I had a couple of months off of dancing and sorry –
RP: It was obviously a lot, you obviously really felt it.
Y: Yeah, especially when you dance fulltime, 9 to 6 every day for four years, it takes a toll and just like what Tammi was saying – sorry –
RP: So sorry, I have this effect on people sometimes. I think it’s always me and I’m so –
Y: I told myself I wasn’t going to cry. No, sorry, let me not joke around. Yeah, it really does feel like losing something. You go through – well maybe not all people but I definitely did, I went through a grieving period and my body knew what it was like to perform and so whenever – when I would perform fulltime we would have rehearsals and getting back into the studio – like this is how the year would go. Getting back into the studio and then performing like at the Opera House and then going to QPAC and just different places all around Australia and then overseas and my body remembered what it was like to do those things on those – in those months. So the next year my body was like - I mentally was grieving about not dancing but my body was grieving too and my body was so used to that kind of high-intensity pressure and performance. So it was everything that Tammi is saying but in a year.
T: Yeah, wow.
RP: So if you look through that – I mean I’ve always wondered particularly when you’re dancing so often and it is a fulltime job how do you connect with what it is that you’re being asked to perform and then how do you connect then with that movement to the audience? If you need a moment please throw it to Tammi as well.
T: Yeah look, I think for me – I mean and when I think back to some of the early tours that I did when we went to Japan, it would be a three-month – I think I did a couple of three months or four months or five months and the six-month tour and this is two shows a day, seven days a week and I’m so grateful for that discipline. I did not understand what kind of a privilege I was walking into when I got that position in Dance Encore because it really taught us that discipline but then when I went out to work out on the ships sometimes we’d be doing the same show for 10 months straight –
RP: As in cruise ships?
T: Cruise ships, yes, I was on Carnivale for a few years and it’s 10 months of the same show. So I’ll be honest, there’d be some nights you’d be out there doing – and I think right, what am I going to cook for dinner tonight and you’d be off – and then I started to think oh okay, this is a problem –
RP: That’s like a –
T: - that’s when you thought you’re not in the pocket, honey, how do you get back in? For me it was always the music, I just have to go – the music would find my way in but I guess to – it’s a different emotional commit – no, it is the same emotional commitment but going from more a commercial, cabaret, pantomime commercial kind of a background and then – now when there’s something else to plug into in terms of indigenous dance or contemporary indigenous dance, I should say, in terms of – for my own experience.
There was something to latch onto in terms of the energetic slipstream that we’re going into ‘cause it was either an old story or there’s some kind of broader universal philosophical thing that we could all be – could relate to, whether the piece was about respect or love or whatever those things – go right across culture and time. So for me I go in through the music, definitely and I have to know what I’m – I need to be sitting in it because then you need to – it’s funny because you become – it becomes embodied and all of that so that then you can – almost that goes in – well it does go into autopilot and then it can come out to here so this all needs to be organised and so then it can take it out.
My mentor would always say to me, Tammi, what’s your prehistory? What’s your prehistory? What’s your prehistory? Whenever I’d be going to step on stage, what happened before this? Know where you’ve come from and know where you're going to so even now if I do a commercial – haven’t done a commercial for a long time but if I was doing a commercial gig, five, six, seven, eight, jazz, one, two, three, four, I’d make sure I know what I’m doing and what can I smell? What can I taste? Where am I? Where am I? Everywhere where I am so then that can all go and then it’s about me and you, sister, we’re in this together. Yeah, for me always through the music first if there’s music and if not well then you really need to listen.
Y: Yeah, I guess sometimes I use music as well but the other thing about me and dance is that I really get lost in music like the kind of lost where you’re like – you know? ‘Cause I'm just like either thinking about what’s for dinner or just in love with the music itself but forgetting what else I need to do with the music. But I think it’s like I have to make a story for myself or it doesn’t even have to be in chronological order or – I just need to give what I'm doing meaning even if it’s like pick up cup, throw up cup, I don’t know. I think that’s how I connect to dance.
Then when you get to the end of your rehearsal period or where you’re creating the piece you – well me personally, I feel like oh I’ve arrived at every possible answer for this movement but then you perform it and then there’s new things that you learn and find and that’s what makes it really beautiful and interesting. I hope that’s what makes it beautiful for audience members as well because you’re coming to these epiphanies or realisations in the moment and it’s so beautiful like I love watching it when you see other dancers break through and they’re dancing beside you and it kind of makes you want to go even harder as well ‘cause you’re doing such a great job and now I want to do a great job as well. I think that’s how I make it new but it just happens automatically because I just love dancers and dancing with people. It’s one of the most rewarding things to do.
RP: So when you’re on that and you’re doing say the same show and you’re travelling all around the place I mean how do you keep that fresh? How do you try not to tap out and how do you stay connected? Are there certain things that you do to try to remind yourself?
Y: Yeah, I definitely – I do a few things but one of them is that I just talk to myself like I'm just in the wings and I’m like okay, you're going to have a really good day today, you’re going to get on stage, you're going to dance your little heart out like I just talk to myself.
Y: But that only happens if I’m having a day where I’m just like I can’t do this ‘cause I feel like everyone’s had that day in their jobs, whatever it is where you’re just like man, I can’t deal with such-and-such or this is just a tough day. I just have a chat to myself, I pull myself aside and then I step on stage and usually when you step on stage there’s just such this - like – you feel like you step into a different world and you can't see the audience sometimes. The audience is dark and the lights are on you and you feel like you’re in a movie like - at least I do and so I just roll with it.
RP: Wow –
T: It’s beautiful.
RP: I love that description and Tammi, I mean you mentioned today something around that – the way that you have approached your dance when you were a body for hire as you put it. Talk me through what this body of hire, the way that you felt about –
RP: - where you found yourself in and the way that you conducted yourself.
T: Yeah, I think definitely the early part of my career before I’d gone on to study contemporary dance or contemporary indigenous, you were - it’s commercial dance so you’re very much one day I’ll be Freddo Frog and the next day I’d be Mary Poppins or we’re doing a lot of promotional things or you go off to do that panto for a bit or you’re going to do a film clip so you’re very much – especially in those days dancers didn’t have tattoos, you had to very – you might have to dye your hair this colour one day and you walk in, are you prepared to dye your hair? Yes, yes, yes, absolutely, shave it off to get the gig. I think - it’s interesting because even the language that goes around with those kinds of things, the cattle call or – you’re literally just a body for hire and that’s fine because often you’d be going in and they say oh we love the way you dance, love but you're just a little bit short for what we need, we need someone to match such-and-such.
So it was very much about a surface reality, no-one cared what I felt about the choreography, they don’t care. You’re not here to care, it’s got nothing to do with you, it’s got to do with my show which is fine, it’s perfectly valid, that’s a valid way of moving and doing a show. It was very much an external product and that’s what we’re doing and that’s fine but yeah, definitely a shift from when I started to go and learn more contemporary performance theory and then I’d start to learn modern ballet or a contemporary dance, you suddenly go oh.
I remember Bernadette Walong said to me once – we were doing something in class and she said oh how does that feel? I just looked at her and I said sorry? I didn’t know what she was talking about. She said how does that feel? What do you mean? She said how does that feel when you do that move? I said oh I don’t know and she said well you got problems ‘cause if you don’t know what that feels like, sister, go and sort it out because if you can’t feel your body you’re in the wrong business. It was really interesting ‘cause I’ve never – and I’d already been in a company for seven years before I went to do that, I never actually had anyone ask me what did that feel like? I mean and that’s fine ‘cause that wasn’t the thing but to allow yourself to suddenly have a bit of autonomy about – that was cool, that was cool so there’s a definite different thing, I think.
That was my experience going from a commercial kind of background to then stepping into the contemporary foray, it was suddenly I was allowed to think for myself and experiment and basically do whatever I wanted to do as long as I was willing to accept the consequences for what that may present for myself or for the audience. It was free reign, I was like I think I might try a bit of that, thanks.
RP: Yolanda, I want to know about the times when you have had things go maybe the wrong way, that you weren’t expecting. Maybe it’s a costume malfunction, you maybe have had a bad day at the office and the entire audience got to see it. What are those moments like? Have you had those moments in your career?
Y: Definitely. I’ve had a handful of costume malfunctions, I won’t tell any of them today but yeah, there’s –
RP: Is there one that stands out? I mean it’s up to you, you can tell us about that one time.
Y: That I told you today?
RP: If you want, it’s up to you.
Y: Okay, I’ll tell it. So I was telling Rhianna and Tammi today that – we were talking about costume malfunctions and one time – this was when we were in India and I was being very aware – I had to cover up my body and I was trying to be very respectful. One of the costumes that I wore, they were very old, the costumes ‘cause the dance we were doing had existed for like decades and so the costumes, they were the original costumes that they did decades ago and so I was fitting into the costume and it was a leo –
RP: As in a leotard?
Y: A leotard, yes and then it had a sheer dress over the top and I was wearing a crop top and then I was dancing and then I was doing – ‘cause I have to mark it full out so that I know where I have to be in the space. So I was doing the movements and I went like this and I came back and then my leo strap popped and I felt so horrible. I was wearing a crop top underneath and I was just like oh my gosh and I was looking in the audience thinking – making sure that no-one was looking at me. Like obviously my director was looking at me and I just kept going ‘cause it’s not a big enough reason to stop the show but I just didn’t want to be rude to the people just walking by.
But yeah – and there’s also times where behind the stage so when you’re watching a show it looks pretty calm on stage but backstage everyone’s freaking out and there was one time where I was on that side of the stage but I needed to be on that side of the stage but the stage was so long and it was so deep as well. So I ran all the way down here, all the way across here, all the way up there and then I realised I forgot my prop so I had to run back and I was like get out of my way –
T: Oh no –
Y: Yeah and I was just like get out of my way and I was like where’s my prop and freaking out? I think that was the most – I apologised to everyone and they were like oh no, we thought that you might have been stressing out ‘cause they could hear the counts and everyone knew my counts and they could hear it and they were like why are you not on stage? That’s why I had to run back. Oh yeah, there’s a few, there's a few.
T: Oh my goodness.
T: Oh look, I’ve had quite a few. Oh boy, I’ve had quite a few malfunctions. Do you want just a costume one or do you want a really good techy one I’ve just remembered?
RP: Wherever, wherever you want to take me.
T: One of the funniest costume thing – it wasn’t a costume malfunction, it was a Tammi malfunction and I was coming forward to do my bow and the gorgeous Tammi and I’ve come up to do – and we had long boot covers on that come right over our knees and I’ve – I can’t do it now but I had one toe up to there but I got my heel caught in the thing and just went – and I had to crawl offstage. I had this big fruit bowl on my head, gorgeous tropical nights costume, G-string and the audience – and it was a club show and the audience were just losing their mind, killing themselves laughing and it was the only time I’ve ever said to my dance – I can’t go back out, I can't do it and she said get your costume on and get on stage. I said no, please don’t make me go back out there, she said get out there and I have to say pulling up the guts to go, you can’t hide, love, it’s a four-person show, going back out and the audience just went crazy and we end up having the most amazing show because for whatever reason I just think they were just like wow, you got some guts coming back on here after that. It was the most embarrassing thing. I literally had to crawl from – it would be about here right over – just – ‘cause I couldn’t get the heel out of the boot and it was dreadful. That was probably my most embarrassing one, embarrassing one but you’re young and you –
RP: But there’s nothing you can do, really, you’ve just got to get off stage and try to fix it.
T: I could not get my heel out of the boot or the fishnet and I was so scared of ripping my fishnets as well, it was just – it was so bad it was really embarrassing.
RP: For those who are in the room and unfortunately not on the livestream you can’t ask questions but if you do have a question that you’re thinking in the back we will have microphones coming ‘round so we’ll open the floor to questions very soon. But I guess, Tammi, I want to talk about the innovation in the space of Indigenous, particularly Indigenous contemporary dance at the moment. Bangarra really broke the mould –
RP: - and I want to – I guess I want to know from you in the spaces that you work, what is the innovation? Where are we hearing? What can we expect as an audience but also what can future dancers coming through expect as well?
T: Look, I think there’s some really interesting potential in some of our young ones that are coming up now that are really starting to take the torch and run with it. I think if there’s bravery from this young mob to keep building on the legacy that’s been built but then to say you know what? Maybe I might just try this other little way and see if that works and allowing – I keep going back to my mentor, he used to say Tammi, you have a right to fail, you have a right to fail. It’s your business, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, you’ll eventually find your way.
So I think there’s a lot of potential for all these young dancers, especially some incredible first nations dancers that are coming up through the ranks now that I just would just say just be brave, allow yourself to traverse completely unknown landscapes because it’s the only way we’re ever going to keep building on the legacy that companies like Bangarra have really broken that mould and said right, we can go – people like Vicki Van Hout, I mean she’s just been a trailblazer off her own sense of rebound and has really carved out her own technique, contemporary indigenous technique and that was there, the things from the different traditional forms that were speaking to her.
So I think research and just experimentation, I think is really - keeping a curious mind and knowing that you’re standing on the shoulders of those that went before you but it doesn’t mean you can’t run and jump off and go and then come quickly, jump back on if you need to. So much potential, I just think it’ll all just come down to bravery ‘cause we’ve set the standard, we know what’s what, we’re here, we’re loud, we’re proud, we’re already present, that’s all cool, we’ve done that now and then what? I think that’s where we’re at now. But I mean –
RP: Yolanda, I mean you’re going to be a part of that next generation ushering this in, maybe even being a part of it as well as being the hand that brings the next generation through. I mean what are you seeing in the spaces that you are and what are the things that excite you?
Y: Yeah, I think - I also want to touch on what Tammi just said, that I agree completely, everything that you're saying is how I feel about the innovation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander contemporary dance and I think the more that people, individual dancers follow what makes them them, their unique ability or their unique – their gift, what makes them special, the more that they follow that the more I feel this innovation will come ‘cause it’s – like the thing that we were talking about today about trailblazers who just own their special gift.
Then people are like oh my god like people are gobsmacked by what they have to offer but when you talk to them they're just like no, I just want to do it my way, I don’t want to be pigeonholed, I don’t want to be boxed in, I want to do what my body wants to do, I want to honour me. I feel like the more that people do that the more – ‘cause it creates unique styles of moving and different - there’s just – no two people move the same, right? The more that you lean into that the more exciting that is and the more yummy. I just love watching people just like in their world and moving the way that they want to move and not like the way that someone else wants them to move if that – does that make sense?
T: It’s a tricky dichotomy because on the one hand we respect and understand the need for discipline and repetition and a technique and having the aunties there, no, come on, that’s not right, get down, do it again ‘cause you have a frame of reference of what things should be. I think it’s a tricky one because you almost need to know what the rules are before you can start to break with them –
Y: Yes, I agree.
T: - and then I guess building up the – I don’t know, clout to almost – to be like I’m allowed to go and do my thing now. It’s like oh no, mate, you can go and do your thing whenever you want but it’s a tricky – too world because on the one hand you want to be disciplined and have technique and have a sense of lineage, who have you trained under? Where did you come from? What’s the actual line that you’ve come down? There’s definitely that but then also it’s finding that thing that makes it unique and you unique and then being able to follow that but that is so much easier said than done, my god, it’s very rich coming from me, I can assure you.
RP: Well I might open up to those who are in the room here at the moment. If you have a question please raise your hand. We have a couple of microphones coming around. Oh there’s one down the front here, thank you so much.
A: Hi, thank you both, very, very interesting. Coming from a very mixed background myself of – straddling between commercial, jazz, that kind of thing and contemporary dance, modern dance into contemporary dance. For Tammi, does it still resonate in your body, the commercial side and does it inform some of what you do in your beautiful Indigenous contemporary dance?
T: Yes, I think it does, I definitely think - and I don’t think I could ever, ever lose that jush, I love the jush, there’s something about it but it’s – I do, it still drives me and I am still really passionate about the idea of entertainment and so I’m an entertainer and I was trained as an entertainer and that was something that Lesley really, really made us so proud of, that it’s your job to entertain, you're going to transport people somewhere else. This is your thing. It does stay with me. It’s funny you should say that because just recently – because sometimes I get so caught up in the whole emotional oh I’m having an emotional moment in my choreographic thing that I can sometimes become so internal that I’ve forgotten what it’s actually for that I’m creating this for somebody else.
So going back to that old training of well yes, that’s great, Tam, but it’s about them. It still informs me, definitely, I still can’t do open lines like I can’t cope, I’m always kicking to the corner and things like that, there are just certain things that are just so ingrained in the body that I – yeah, that sense of show and showmanship. I think that would be hard for me to get rid of. Sometimes I miss it, sometimes I miss the idea that I can go five, six, seven, eight, here’s your routine and that’s that and it doesn’t require pulling up all of these trauma and tragedy and dramatic ability to really take – not that that’s not important to be able to do too but geez, it’d be nice to just go out and have a boogie sometimes and have the sequins coming and the lights and oh I should go and knock on Lesley’s door again now and say – I could do it really good now, Lesley, could you make me a routine? Yeah, it’s hard to get rid of, eh?
A: Can I ask another question, sorry?
RP: Sure, go ahead. If everyone else is fine with it. Yeah, I think everyone’s nodding. You’ve got the floor.
A: I guess this is about how much non-Indigenous dancers love indigenous dance and would love to be able to share more but the question is always where and how? How much can they just tap into and what is that because you want to share what you do but we also have to be so careful and so respectful but there’s just a way of moving that non-Indigenous dancers, young and old, would love to do more of, basically.
T: You know I remember when Stephen Page set a number on the contestants from So You Think You Can Dance and he made a really good statement. He said how was that, you guys? The dancers were all really oh – and these were all extremely talented, technically capable dancers but they were struggling with this chore – and I remember Stephen saying – and I remember thinking – I was sitting at home watching it and he said this is the dance from your country, you’re an Aussie like this is – it’s important for you to be able to embody this. So I think that’s something really important, Ruth, that gently, gently opening those channels so that the average Joe Dancer in Australia can actually start to be able to move and appreciate those qualities of movement. I think that’s really, really important and I guess it’s finding the proper ways to do it so that it doesn’t be just a – but actually being able - because all of these paces and ways of moving are completely in response to country. It’s not until you’ve actually been able to sit and yarn with someone for six, eight, 10 hours about just the way that the river’s flowing that that can then start to inform on how you move.
So it’s time. But I think the time is now because we’re all dancers, we all dance, we’re all doing the same thing albeit for potentially different reasons but I think that would be something that would really propel this country’s dance industry or dance reality so much more forward if the contemporary indigenous language that has been brewing for the last what, 30 years began to filter out a little more to the general population so that we can dance with our non-Indigenous colleagues and be able to actually share that sense of time or the - ‘cause you might go – and we all know what’s going on but unless you’ve got the shared language and for us as dancers that language is the way that we’re moving with space.
So I think that you’ve just hit the nail on something really, really important there that we need to be able to share this in ways for our brothers and sisters across the dance just as we’ve tapped into western styles as well so maybe it starts to become – I guess because so much has been taken that there’s always a sense of protection but I think contemporary indigenous has almost broken – it has, it’s its own little thing – I mean it’s still informed by and all of that kind of thing but it’s – I think there’s – certainly in a space now where we could start to share the love a little more so that we’ve not only got a more educated dance audience but our colleagues get us ‘cause I can do a ball change kick no worries but if we get someone to do a traditional step it takes time. I think it’s important, you’ve made a really important point there.
RP: Thank you. If there are no more questions I might ask Rebecca to come back up to close out our session, our first session of Deadly Dialogues.
R: Thank you so much, the three of you, that was just amazing and I'm just so struck and in awe of listening to you, Tammi and Yolanda, speak that incredible sense of self that you have, that incredible sense of – your relationship, talking about your relationship with space and knowing where the dance sits in you and Tammi, when you showed us where that dance sits and you’re like goosebumps and just really, really beautiful. Yolanda, hearing you talk about - not even in words but feeling your grief about thinking about being away from dance. My goodness, just amazing stuff so thank you so much for sharing yourselves and your stories and your being so beautifully tonight.
To everybody here and watching online thank you so much for coming and just a bit of a plug. Like I said this is the first of three Deadly Dialogues in this series. The next one will be on the 16th of June. Rhianna will be back and this time she’ll be talking with the amazing Deborah Cheetham, first nations soprano, writer of the extraordinary opera, Pecan Summer, a script of which can be seen up in the exhibition upstairs, On Stage. Thank you all for coming, it’s been a wonderful evening and thank you all so much.
Deadly Dialogues is a new series of in-conversation style events hosted by Rhianna Patrick. Created as an extension of the current On Stage: Spotlight on Our Performing Arts exhibition – a celebration of performing arts in Australia – Deadly Dialogues is a chance to hear firsthand experiences from First Nations performing artists that have told stories On Stage, through everything from body language to the oldest living languages in the world.
With On Stage showcasing musical scores from Pecan Summer by Deborah Cheetham AO, poster for Bangarra’s first full length show Praying Mantis Dreaming and portrait of trailblazer Bob Maza who co-founded the National Black Theatre of Australia, this is a wonderful opportunity to hear from the people behind those objects. From stories passed through generations to stories of today, we invite you to join us in hearing from a range of First Nations performing artists as they bring On Stage to life.