After an extensive career as a long-standing senior member of Bangarra Dance Theatre, the highly-esteemed Elma Kris is retiring from full-time dancer, and onto new endeavours. She has spent the last three decades as a core member of the company, seeing the story of Bangarra unfold with her own, and playing a critical role in the shaping of this national treasure. Over this time, Kris has shared her art and culture with the world, including the illustrious role of co-choreographer/collaborator on cultural sections of the 2000 Sydney Olympics Opening Ceremony. Dance Informa had the opportunity to interview Kris, and find out a little more about her life in dance, culture and what is in store for the future.
What was your dance upbringing? Did your early training initially include a lot of what we know as traditionally European dance styles?
“Traditional elements were the main tools utilised in my early training, to ensure the sharing of culture and in shaping my identity. Stepping into contemporary dance was a new resource for me, which I discovered as a student at NAISDA Dance College. NAISDA provided me with cultural training, the study and practice that reflects back to culture. It was really good, especially being away from community and my family in Thursday Island. My training at NAISDA helped me learn both Indigenous and Aboriginal and Torres Strait cultures, showing me where I came from. My early training helped shape my identity, go back to my roots and allowed me to stand and talk about both cultures and understand how important they are. The dance, the song, the language was there, but I had to practice and discipline myself to learn the cultural elements. It was difficult, but I would call family back home and ask them to help me understand these systems and nurture the cultural side of my training.
At NAISDA, I did choreograph some work that was inspired by traditional European dance styles. In my community, in the 1980s, we would watch ballet or midnight shows, including Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I grew up watching those shows on TV. They were early influences at a young age and during high school.”
On a personal level, what have been some of your more significant career highlights?
“I really enjoyed choreographing the Torres Strait Island element of the Sydney Olympics Opening Ceremony (2000), and collaborating with Peggy Misi for the first time on this work, as well as Sani Townsend. This work represented all Torres Strait Islanders; we collaborated and shared their culture together. Our family back home were proud to see that happen. I was surprised that there was a TSI section in the Olympics – that we were able to represent home. We were very overwhelmed, Stephen Page, too, to have that challenge and responsibility.
The beautiful thing is that the culture of my community could make its way down south through this performance. I was excited to learn what life down south was like, and it was wonderful to travel further than Cairns and continue my personal journey.”
Can you please talk a bit about the connection of your career to your culture, and the significance of exploring this through dance?
“I have learnt so much through the company. I’m very inspired by Stephen Page and Frances Rings. Just being with the company and watching what the company does – seeing the value of the company, the work they do in embracing our culture. The dancers come from all over Australia. We are all individuals; we all have our own stories, culture and dance. It’s amazing to come to a company to dance, have a yarn, share culture and stories. Getting to go to one another’s hometowns and learn one another’s culture and dance is very special. Australia is a big country. I’d never been to Alice Springs or Darwin. This company taps into the community and travels to exchange culture, to tell stories and bring them back. That legacy continues with the company and the community; it’s this ongoing thing. This vision and the values of the company are really important.”
How have you found exploring and sharing the stories of your culture through such a staged art form? How does the experience of performing on Country differ to performing on stage in theatres across the country and around the world?
“One of the beautiful things is being with the company on Country. The magic is being out there, with community, where everyone gets to see it. In Thursday Island, we go to Anzac Park. In Yirrkala last year, we performed on the basketball court. It’s magical; that’s where the stage is alive.
In the theatre, it’s different. We have such diverse audiences that come to see our shows. Sometimes the audience can be silent and really engaged, taking the story in. Throughout my journey, I’ve sometimes been really overwhelmed in trying to understand audiences in the theatre, as it is so different to being on Country. Our performances take them back to reflect on the olden days – it is a remembering, a re-awakening, on the stage, but audiences in the theatre also take in the contemporary dance aspects.”
You have an exciting new role ahead of you with involvement in the Bangarra Youth Program Team. What are the plans there, also creatively speaking?
“I like working with the Youth Program Team because you have the chance to become a child again. You get to have fun with the kids. It is not about trying to make them a dancer, or turning them into dancers; it is about nurturing them. I love teaching kids because you can inspire them. This is your role, to give them confidence. Educating those kids is really important in sharing our culture – with permission from the community. Just to sit down and watch, or have them choreograph a rhythm dance. It is really important we connect with our youth.”
Do you also have plans to branch out and create work outside of Bangarra? Or, what do you see the next few years looking like creatively?
“My next few years will be step by step. I need to spend some time with my community, as I’ve been away from home for so long, or only visiting sparingly. Things change back home in Thursday Island — protocol changes, things have changed in the community. In the future, I hope to go into schools and conduct workshops with them, and present my knowledge. I’ve already got a lot of people asking me to come and work with them, so I am preparing myself for that. When I’ve choreographed some work with the company, I can leave them with an impression of my journey and weave in my culture. I’m really looking forward to this next stage of the journey.”
Now that you are on the other side of your performance career, do you have any thoughts or gems that you would like to share with the younger generation?
“I think my advice to the younger generation is to just go with your passion and what you want to be. It is a journey. Everyone is different. For me, in my career, I was a visual artist, and now I am a performer/choreographer, and it has been good to be passionate about both. I left visual art for a very long time, but it is something I can go back to, and do on the sidelines.”
By Linda Badger of Dance Informa.