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Muggera Dancers: Sharing culture with the community

Jacqui Cornforth performing at the Lord Mayor's Party. Photo courtesy of Muggera.
Jacqui Cornforth performing at the Lord Mayor's Party. Photo courtesy of Muggera.

In 2015, Muggera was founded by Darren Compton and Jacqui Cornforth and has since gone from strength to strength as a dance group committed to preserving its cultures and sharing it with the community. With a group of six to 12 dancers performing and teaching full-time or casually, Muggera aims to set a new standard for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural performance and engagement in Australia, and 2017 is off to the best possible start.

Darren Compton. Photo courtesy of Muggera.

Darren Compton. Photo courtesy of Muggera.

“All members of Muggera come from a long line of cultural leaders, song men, dancers and didgeridoo players with years of respect for culture,” says Cornforth. “[Each] have been performing and sharing their culture for many years and have been guided by their Elders over many decades.”

Compton is a proud descendent of Bundjalung, Munanjali, and Gamillaraay nations of the mainland, and the Mer people of the Torres Strait Islands. A multi-skilled performer and dancer since the age of 13, he has performed in over 5,000 shows across Australia, from corporate events to small community settings. A proficient yiggi yiggi (didgeridoo) player and visual artist/craftsman, he is a hip hop and traditional dancer who credits The Doonooch Dance Company for solidifying his cultural backbone.

Cornforth says, “ The Doonooch Dance Company are the result of the self-healing program begun in 1998 by Bobby McLeod (dec). Tradition, culture and ceremony inspire and define them, and this has been passed onto Darren, who has also performed internationally, travelling to over 24 countries representing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island culture.”

Born in Cairns, Cornforth is a Wuthathi (Aboriginal) woman from East Cape York Peninsula, Queensland, and is also a Torres Strait Islander woman with family ties to Thursday, Badu and Moa Islands. From an early age, she danced with Torres Strait Island Cultural Tutors Noel and Kay Zaro from Gerib Sik and found an interest in contemporary dance at QL2 (Quantum Leap Youth Dance Ensemble). This interest then led her to study at NAISDA and graduate from Queensland University of Technology with a Bachelor of Arts (Dance).

Jacqui Cornforth and Darren Compton. Photo courtesy of Muggera.

Jacqui Cornforth and Darren Compton. Photo courtesy of Muggera.

“We decided to create Muggera as we both came from strong cultural upbringings where we were guided in groups that brought families together not only to preserve culture but also share it with the community,” Cornforth explains. “Darren in particular has danced with many dance troupes throughout his career and has a wealth of cultural knowledge passed onto him, not only from his family Elders but from cultural leaders from all over Australia.”

Muggera even makes all traditional elements of its costumes themselves. “We have been so lucky to have had cultural leaders, teachers and Elders who have passed on this cultural knowledge onto us so we can continue these practices,” Cornforth says. “Sometimes, the traditional source of what we need to make is unavailable to us in Sydney, so we use more modern sources but keep the making of the item as authentic as possible. Many of our instruments and artefacts have been in our families for years and years, so we are unsure of their original source.”

Muggera began its busy year on New Year’s Eve at the Lord Mayor’s Party in the Welcome to Country Ceremony at the Sydney Opera House. “It was a magical night that we were so honoured to be a part of,” Cornforth shares. “The City of Sydney was so supportive of us in the lead up to this event and throughout, and we are grateful we have a strong relationship with them.”

Following this, came MCing the Corrobboree Ground at Yabun Festival on January 26, the largest one-day gathering and recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultures in Australia held on the traditional lands of the Gadigal people in Sydney. “It’s a free event that features live music, bustling market stalls, panel discussions and community forums on Aboriginal issues, children’s activities, and traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural performances,” says Cornforth. “It was a fantastic day!”

Muggera before performing at the Indigenous All Stars. Photo courtesy of Muggera.

Muggera before performing at the Indigenous All Stars. Photo courtesy of Muggera.

Most recently, Muggera played a major role in the NRL all-stars week and game day. Muggera and Doonooch members got the opportunity to meet the Indigenous All Star Players, exchange culture and perform not only prior to the game on the field but also with the players before kick-off. “This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Muggera that we will never forget,” Cornforth expresses. “We are huge fans of the NRL and especially the Indigenous players, and we were blown away by the players’ generosity, welcoming nature and support throughout the week.”

One of the main issues facing all dancers is adequate payment for work, and Cornforth reminds us why it is important, especially for anyone hiring someone with special and specific cultural knowledge for an event. “If [you have an] interest in having a cultural performance at your school, organisation, function, event, festival or more, then it’s important to remember that cultural knowledge isn’t found in books or on the internet. It is a lived experience that is unmatched in relation to other professional qualifications, skills and careers that are out there.”

She adds, “It’s important to remember that to engage with an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander group, person, individual or any element, it must be remunerated properly. In saying this, there are many instances where this has been taken for granted, so it’s best to get to know who you are hiring, talk to them, speak through costs and engage on a deeper level.” She talks about this as a way of education and progress for her community and says, “We need to move away from engaging with Indigenous peoples and their cultures on a ‘token’ level and really think about what outcomes we want to achieve together.”

On the field for the Indigenous All Stars match. Photo courtesy of Muggera.

On the field for the Indigenous All Stars match. Photo courtesy of Muggera.

For the rest of 2017, Muggera will be busy during Reconciliation Week (27 May-3 June), NAIDOC Week (2-9 July), and expanding partnerships and relationships with individuals and organisations that are becoming increasingly passionate about engaging with Indigenous culture. “Muggera is also featuring more and more at weddings, which has been a really humbling experience to have people wanting us to be a part of such a big day in their lives,” Cornforth says. “We are creating such important partnerships and relationships with so many people from all walks of life who are passionate about engaging with Indigenous culture more and more. We are continuing to expand our skill base and engage with individuals and organisations in different ways. We also have great partnerships with schools and their students, and we hope to continue this throughout 2017.”

Cornforth continues, “Our goal is to be a successful dance company that nurtures the next generation, where [our] members can share culture and engage with the community as a career. We hope to feature more heavily at national cultural events and be seen as a professional, genuine and respected group of cultural leaders, knowledge holders and performers. [We] want to influence the wider community in making informed choices about how they engage with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and its cultures.”

To learn more about Muggera or book them for an event, visit muggera.com or follow @muggeradancers on Instagram.

By Elle Evangelista of Dance Informa.

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