Australian Dance Reviews

‘From Sand to Stage’ pays tribute to NAISDA and Aboriginal activism

Carriageworks, Sydney.
19 November 2016.

Celebrating the 40th anniversary of National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association (NAISDA) Dance College, the Circle of Cultures season at Carriageworks also examined the development of NAISDA within the broader context of the development of Aboriginal activism and protest in Australia.

The “main stage” graduation performance, From Sand to Stagewas devised in three parts: Past, Present and Future, combining newly commissioned works from three guest choreographers, some vintage works from Carole Y. Johnson (one of NAISDA’s key founding figures) and student works, and concluding with some traditional Aboriginal dances and songs of the Yolngu clan from North East Arnhem Land with its traditional Banumbirr (Morning Star pole).

Sometimes, it felt a little jumbled and messy. In parts, it was perhaps difficult to follow the narrative thread and to tell where one section ended and the next one began. But overall, it was extremely impressive, and the performances were outstanding.

The accompanying printed program that was available was most informative, providing a historical background and context to NAISDA’s emergence as a training institution in the 1970s, as well as choreographers’ notes that helped to clarify the symbolism and intent of some of the works. As a school, NAISDA’s dancers are more diverse in build, technique and style than the graduates of many other tertiary dance programs, which is great.

There was a lot of anger and turbulence, from the reworking of Embassy of the 1970s as reimagined by Vicki Van Hout, through to current times with references to Bill Leak’s controversial cartoon and the recent Kalgoorlie violence. Van Hout’s work included the creative use of props (a vacuum cleaner pipe used as a didgeridoo!), including tent-like structures that fluidly shifted, controlled and restrained the dancers’ movement, at times like a ship with sails, at others like a bulging camel and tents, and protest placards that later formed the backdrop for a projected recording. The way Aboriginals/TSI people are treated and insulted was included with all sorts of awkward impolite questions being asked in the line-up at the microphone. There was a section where cans were used as a wall, and this developed into references to glue sniffing by young people.   

Johnson’s Brown Skin Baby solo (danced with haunting grief and power by Coleen Jerrard), with its Graham-style choreographic influence and a cry from the heart for the Stolen generation, also reminded  us of the African-American tradition of dance activism that was a crucial part of  NAISDA’s early years.

Omer Backley-Astrachan’s Blinders (choreographed in conjunction with Certificate III students) is a striking, compelling work. The combination of Elvis Presley’s melancholic “I Can’t Help Falling in Love” with glorious photos of the Australian landscape made a lasting impression.

Also included were excerpts from Elma Kris’s Emeret Lu and About, originally created for Bangarra Dance Theatre, which showcased the trademark Bangarra blend of lyrical, contemporary and Indigenous dance at its best. Later, the solo by Jonathan Brown, Dark Side of Me, was a highlight with its dark splintered menace and fractured despair. Institution, with its chilling atmosphere of Lowood, was haunting for its evocation of how the stolen generation of Aboriginal women were harshly treated.

The lighting for all the works was extremely effective. There is also an exhibition linked in that has fascinating posters, photographs, newspaper clippings, videos and other memorabilia charting the history of NAISDA.  

From Sand to Stage was a most exciting programme showcasing some wonderful graduating talent, and there is reason to look forward to many more years for NAISDA!

By Lynne Lancaster of Dance Informa. 

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