Ghenoa Gela, Winner of the Keir Choreographic Award 2016

Ghenoa Gela's 'Fragments of Malungoka–Women of the Sea'. Photo by Gregory Lorenzutti.

In May, The Keir Foundation, Carriageworks and Dancehouse with the Australia Council announced Ghenoa Gela as the recipient of the 2016 Keir Choreographic Award for her work titled Fragments of Malungoka – Women of the Sea. In addition to her surprise, Gela also received the Audience Choice Award, taking home an additional $10,000 to the $30,000 prize.

Gela, a proud Torres Strait Islander woman from Rockhampton and who is now based in Sydney, has worked across several mediums, including dance, circus, television and stage. For the Keir Choreographic Award, she asked questions such as: What is traditional dance? Is it dance, or is it a way of being? Does it only hold a sense of tradition when danced by people from that culture? If traditional Torres Strait Islander dance is performed by non-Torres Strait Islander people, what does the dance become?

Ghenoa Gela's 'Fragments of Malungoka–Women of the Sea' Photo by Gregory Lorenzutti

Ghenoa Gela’s ‘Fragments of Malungoka–Women of the Sea’. Photo by Gregory Lorenzutti.

Fragments of Malungoka – Women of the Sea was performed by three non-Torres Strait Islanders, and I was lucky enough to be one of them. Admittedly, I struggle to write this article, as Gela is larger-than-life and so vivacious, that she cannot be described in words.

A big lover of Japanese anime, she cites the art form as an interest that borders on obsession and uses particular animes to inspire parts of her life. “Actually, the masks in Fragments of Malungoka – Women of the Sea were influenced by an anime called Bleach,” she explains. “I wanted the Torres Strait Islander head dress (Dhari) to be what they have as a mask, but I wanted to put my own style to it. That’s how it came out the way it did, and I was very happy with the result.”

Gela continues, “I have some pretty big ambitions, and when I get moments of doubt I watch my all- time favourite anime ([which is a] big call because there are thousands), One Piece! This guy, Luffy, is a pirate, he’s the captain of ‘StrawHat Pirates’, and his ambition is to be the freest guy on all the seas. To do that, he must obtain the treasure ‘One Piece’ and become the ‘King of the Pirates’! He gets laughed at daily and comes across some epic strong foes, but he’s so determined on his course, he skills up and gets stronger, knowing that the adventure will be hard, and he does all this with compassion and integrity.”

Gela wants to use these qualities to help her in a big goal: establishing an all-female, multi-skilled company with Torres Strait form and technique as the base. She admits with a laugh, “No one has laughed at me, but some faces are pretty priceless! It seems impossible to some, but to me, there’s an opportunity for it. There are many companies all across the globe, not just the arts, where people have made things happen against the odds.”

Gela decided to enter the Keir Choreographic Award with her dad’s attitude in mind: “You never know, unless you give it a go!

“Another good way to get your name out there in the industry is apply for grants,” she suggests. “I approached this with the same energy. I wanted people to know this was something I was interested in.”

Gela then assembled her team, beginning with her mum’s eldest sister, Aunty Agnes Santo, who Gela says “indulged my every question, and her continued support helped give me the guidelines I could follow in creating this work”. Melinda Tyquin helped Gela with the administration requirements of the work, as well as her role as a performer. Also involved were Melanie Palomares, who performed in Gela’s previous work, Winds of Woerr, and myself, the third dancer of the work. And some of the more behind-the-scenes team members included Ania Reynolds (music composer), whom Gela met at Circus OZ; Toby Knyvett (audio visual and lighting designer); Danielle Micich (outside eye/mentor); Rob Hughes (AV/LX operator); and Miranda Wheen, who was set to perform in the work but had to bow out with an injury and later helped Gela realize the idea behind the raffia pants.

“The idea behind this work is something that I have been thinking about for a good while now,” Gela shares. “I know that on paper seeing that Aunty Aggy told me stories and this is how it came about, is actually the simplest form I could put to fit into the required word count! It was a lot deeper then just that. Aunty Aggy went into great detail, generously answering my question after question as best she could. I had a lot of work to do to find the right story that would fit the amazing ladies I had in my team. I can imagine everyone in the Award went through their own tremendous journey of making sure they had the best representation of what they were intending to show as well.”

Ghenoa Gela's 'Fragments of Malungoka–Women of the Sea' Photo by Gregory Lorenzutti

Ghenoa Gela’s ‘Fragments of Malungoka–Women of the Sea’. Photo by Gregory Lorenzutti.

She continues, “I didn’t think it was an award-winning idea. I just thought it would be a good one. Actually, I didn’t think that putting traditional dance on people not of that culture would be an interesting idea. I mean, this has already happened many times before in the industry. What I thought was interesting was posing the question to the non-Torres Strait Islander audience: What is traditional dance? I was interested in what the audience members thought was traditional Torres Strait Islander dance. I was interested in whether they knew what was traditional and what wasn’t and where they came up with that answer. I mean, from a review I read, they compared it to Aboriginal dance, which of course is not even the same culture, and some people didn’t even know we as Torres Strait Islander people have our own flag. This was the interesting part for me.”

I asked Gela about the more priceless elements of winning the award, and she expresses that sharing her culture and these post-show conversations were most certainly big wins aside from the prize money. “Sharing my culture with people [as] my culture is constantly getting lost in the system,” she reflects. “There were a few people that came to see the shows, that didn’t even know we are a separate people to the Aboriginal people. Some didn’t know we had a flag, and others have never even heard of us. One quote was, ‘Oooohh! You’re the other box next to the Aboriginal box on those Government forms! I’ve always wondered who they were!’ It’s actually not surprising anymore when people say that to me as their form of connection to my culture – people who grew up in this country, too. So actually having those conversations after the show, that is pretty priceless.”

Gela is set to work with Force Majeure later this year. She will also be developing her solo, My Urrwai, which is set for presentation during 2017, supported by Performing Lines. “In between all that,” she says, “I’ll be working my din (butt) off trying to find work, make new connections and re-connect so that I’ll be employed in-between jobs. Life still goes on, ay!”

By Elle Evangelista of Dance Informa.

Photo (top): Ghenoa Gela’s ‘Fragments of Malungoka–Women of the Sea’. Photo by Gregory Lorenzutti.

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