Dance Informa continues its series, Juggling a Dance Career with Children, with Yolande Brown, who shows that motherhood can lead to unexpected possibilities.
Sometimes, the things that take you away from the career path you’re on can lead to unimagined possibilities. It’s a recurring theme with the dancers we’ve spoken to about juggling a professional dance career and parenthood. Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Yolande Brown, co-choreographer of the company’s latest work, Dark Emu, had just that kind of experience. Since becoming a mother, she’s been able to develop her skills as a choreographer, develop a deeper connection to her country and draw on her talents outside of performance.
A trigger for a new direction
Brown’s son, Xavier, was born in 2015, when she was a senior artist with the company. Having a child was a catalyst that resulted in Brown being more involved in choreography and curating cultural content.
“When Xavier was eight months, I created a 25-minute work on Queensland University of Technology,” she recalls. “Xavier would come in to the studio, and sometimes he’d need a feed and I’d strap him into my baby carrier, be breastfeeding and choreographing at the same time. I think the dancers all loved that experience as well, that Xavier was in there and part of that creative period.”
Brown continues, “When he was 13 months old, I returned to work at Bangarra to work on a new project called Knowledge Ground, an amazing new digital platform to showcase the last 30 years of our history. The hardest part for me was doing the archiving side. We had so many audio visual items, so many administrative archives, photographic archives, and a lot of that was an organisational enterprise, organising all of these items and getting them all digitized. It wasn’t very creative, but it was interesting.”
At the time that Brown was working on Knowledge Ground, Bangarra’s Artistic Director Stephen Page invited her to co-choreograph the company’s next production, Dark Emu. The work on Knowledge Ground and Dark Emu gave Brown the opportunity to combine her many talents, and to develop a greater connection to her culture.
“I didn’t learn a lot about my background growing up,” Brown reveals. “Working with Bangarra has helped me learn more about the deep history of country. I love working with amazing artists who are inspired and committed to producing great work and educating people about our history and protocols. That’s what I’ve loved about working on Dark Emu. And stepping back into the studio with the dancers has been fantastic. And it’s created a great balance for me this year with my work within the company.”
Possibilities and challenges
Brown has discovered that each day can bring something quite different now that her role is more diverse.
“At the moment, the company is in Perth, and I’m here in Sydney curating Knowledge Ground,” Brown says. “Then I’ll go to Brisbane with the company and take Xavier, because my mum is there. I’ll be a part of the Dark Emu journey in Brisbane, helping bring it to the stage, while also working remotely on Knowledge Ground.”
She adds, “The beauty of working today as a working parent is that the internet has given us the flexibility to work at home or wherever we have an internet connection and a laptop.”
Despite the amazing increase in flexibility that today’s working parents have, Brown acknowledges that juggling her career and parenting has its challenges, but these are balanced by the rewards.
“We have a greater workload and a little person depends on you not just for food, clothes and shelter but for time and love,” she says. “And you don’t want that to be diminished because of what you are doing workwise. Before you even start the day, you’ve already been somewhere else and fed a little person and dressed them and taken them to daycare before you start your day at work, and your day finishes the same way. It adds to your workload, but it doesn’t feel like work because it’s family. There is nothing more special than that connection and the joy and love that you have as a parent. It feeds who you are as a person and fuels your energy and makes you more well-rounded and understanding.”
Brown continues, “I brought Xavier in to Bangarra, and for a few days, Elma, one of the other dancers who wasn’t being used in the sections we were working on, minded him for me. The dancers loved having him come in, and it gave Xavier a sense of belonging and that he was also a part of the creation of the show. If he was home and I was at work, he wouldn’t have an understanding of what I was doing.”
While Brown is able to bring Xavier in to the studio with her sometimes, the work-life balance would not be possible without the support of family.
“My mother came to Sydney for two-and-a-half months, so I could work six days a week to get Dark Emu up in a seven-week creative phase,” Brown explains. “Without her assistance, I wouldn’t have been able to have the same level of contribution to the work. When you have children, you appreciate all the work your parents did to help you grow into the person that you are. My mother was highly supportive of me having a creative career, and that’s really wonderful, and I’d like to do the same or Xavier as well if there is something he is passionate about.”
The leap into parenthood
Making the decision to have a child can be a tough decision, but Brown says she always knew she wanted to be a mother. “I always had an inner knowing that I’d probably retire as a dancer to become a mother. I hadn’t even discussed that with my partner. I think a lot of dancers go through a phase when they mourn the upcoming end of their career before it’s even happened. But I think if you are transitioning into something quite beautiful, it softens it.”
She goes on, “I was never worried or scared. The beautiful thing about going on that journey is that you realise you’re not in control. There are forces way greater than you, and sometimes you have to go with the flow and find happiness within that. It’s kind of like doing a show. You can prepare and do your work and you have an understanding of what will happen on stage, but it’s a live medium, and anything can happen during a performance. I feel like a career on stage prepares you for those kinds of things. I think all of those skills transition into whatever you do in our life post-dance.”
She adds, however, “I don’t see performing as something that’s behind me. I would definitely love to get back on stage in a physical and musical capacity. Having the music and singing gives you more flexibility to play with what you bring to the stage. You don’t have to be a dance artist on stage; you can be more of a character.”
How things change
Brown feels that her body is capable of a return to dance performance, but she’s aware that it’s not just about her body any more.
“I feel as though my body would adapt and switch back into what it was doing, but Bangarra tours for 26 weeks a year,” she says. “I waited until I was older to have Xavier, and I don’t want to miss out on too many minutes of that. I remember when I was in my second and third year in the company, we had a couple of working mothers dance artists, and it was really challenging for them, managing their passion to be a dance artist and their passion as a parent.”
For dancers in different dance companies, the way the company operates and when and where it tours plays a big role in how that impacts those dancers who are parents.
“Bangarra works differently to the way The Australian Ballet works,” Brown says. “With the Aussie ballet dancers, it’s a bit easier for them to bring their children with them because they do three months in Sydney, three months in Melbourne, with touring, but not three nights in different places. Our regional and remote tours have us changing place every three days, and so that’s a lot of travel involved.”
She adds, “I think having a child opens your eyes to possibilities you may not have considered, such as my work with Knowledge Ground. And as a dance artist, you almost contract your life to the company and work long hours. I’m not saying you have a lot of time as a mother, but I work three days a week since I’ve had Xavier, and those extra four days are really beautiful. We spend them outdoors, there’s a lot of play and learning. We are always in the park or on the beach, with the water and textures of the natural environment. All of the inspirations that I play with as an artist on stage. I’m in them, playing with the grass and sand and water, and looking at the sky and listening to people’s stories as they pass by and all of that in the real life version rather than the stage version.”
But Brown says that in a way, a part of her is more relaxed since becoming a mother. “Before you have children, you think you’re going to come back and do it all and dance and be a mother. I think some of the ladies in the company wanted me to do that to pave the way, but you start to see life with a greater sense of perspective as well. Things that are important shift, and watching somebody develop into their own person is such a privilege.”
She concludes, “Your heart really opens when you become a parent, and you discover you have an unknown capacity. If there is stuff you really want to do, you can do it, you can find a way to make things work. It’s not as simple because there are other people involved, but then the outcomes are shared, so the results are kind of two-fold.”
By Jo McDonald of Dance Informa.