Patrick Thaiday will be retiring from Bangarra Dance Theatre after tomorrow’s final performance of Warumuk – in the dark night. On the eve of his new adventures, he talks to The Australian Ballet’s Senior Artist Juliet Burnett.
“Dance … somehow, does not acknowledge borders in the same way as many other arts. Even when certain styles try to limit themselves or work within a frame; the movement of life, its choreography and its need for flux: these take over very quickly, allowing certain styles to mingle with other. Everything engages with everything, naturally, and dance settles only in the space it belongs to — that of the ever-changing present.
People reflect each other constantly, but when they dance, perhaps what they reflect most is that moment of honesty … By moving like other people, by moving with other people and by watching them move, we can best feel their emotions, think their thoughts and connect to their energy. It is, perhaps, then that we can get to know and understand them clearly.”
These are the thoughts of Flemish-Moroccan choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, who is the author of this year’s International Dance Day message. I couldn’t have hoped for a better manifestation of these beautiful words than the experience of working with Stephen Page and Bangarra Dance Theatre on Warumuk – in the dark night. My reverence for Page and his dancers was instilled when my parents took my sister and I to see Ochres when I was eleven, and deepened when I first had the opportunity to dance with them in The Australian Ballet’s 2006 Gathering program. Working with these dancers in the studio, I was awestruck by their complete commitment to their work, and not just the physicality of it, but to the traditional storytelling and the very personal expression that this engendered. There was always a spirit in the room, and onstage that only magnified.
One dancer to whom I have been particularly drawn is Patrick Thaiday. He has been dancing with Bangarra Dance Theatre since 2002; he has become one of its leading dancers, and forged a name for himself in Australian dance history. Every night when I come offstage from dancing as one of the Seven Sisters, I find myself a good vantage point in the wings to watch the extraordinarily moving Morning Star section. I’m continually captivated by Patrick’s performance. There is a hallowed stillness about his dancing, as though the world and all its modern tumult is whirling around him and he has always been there, in that place, dancing these dances that are as much a part of him as his flesh and blood. The final performance of Warumuk on Wednesday night here at the Sydney Opera House will be his finale with Bangarra too.
I couldn’t let Patrick take his last curtain call with us without getting to understand more clearly the personality charging his dancing. We grabbed a pre-show cuppa and sat down to talk culture, collaboration, and the uniting force of dance.
Patrick, your Mum came to see the show last week, and I wonder what someone like her thinks about seeing these traditional stories on a stage, with a ballet company? For example, there’s a lot of talk about Aboriginal contemporary visual art and whether it compromises authenticity of tradition by using non-traditional mediums like acrylic to paint ceremonial body paint onto a canvas…
Yeah, that’s true…
…is that cultural tension something that you sometimes feel, putting a fusion of contemporary dance with traditional Aboriginal dance onto a stage as opposed to dancing in a more traditional setting, or in a ceremony?
Yeah, that’s the sort of thing that I was fighting with a little bit when I joined NAISDA Dance College, because I thought “How can you do it, how you can you mix the two together and not break the traditional style of dance and bastardise it?” It’s been an ongoing issue, especially for a lot of the elders in our community who feel a lot stronger about their culture and its laws. Seeing contemporary Aboriginal dance for the first time in Sydney, I was a little bit hesitant at first, because I knew it was a very touchy issue and I didn’t know which way I stood with it. At Bangarra we have the elders and consultants come down to Sydney and give us permission to perform the stories. In the Torres Strait Islands where I come from there are dances that are traditional and sacred, and other dances that are like play dances which are of a contemporary form, so that sort of playful style of dance mixed with modern is definitely OK with me, but I would have to say something if we ever did a sacred dance that was very important in our culture on the big stage mixed with contemporary. But Stephen is so good in the way that he mixes the styles together and brings out the proper traditional dance. We have also performed traditional dance where it’s just purely that.
Do you think that Stephen’s understanding of the culture and dancing his choreography has strengthened your own sense of identity? Do you feel, onstage, like you are telling your own story?
Yes, in a way. For me, basically when I’m onstage, I’m not just telling my own story, but the story of my ancestors, like I’m a representative or a guardian of that culture and the history of where we came from. I see myself as an ambassador for that when I perform, and that’s where I get my strength from when I’m onstage. I have always felt that spirit instilled in me from when I was a young kid. I think it’s really important for us dancers to remember that these days.
Before you worked with us at The Australian Ballet, did you ever watch the ballet? What was your first connection with ballet after your training at NAISDA?
We did a fair bit of ballet at NAISDA, and I remember thinking in my first lessons “oh my God I hate this, I hate ballet!” because I just wasn’t getting it and thought it was way too hard. Then I got to Bangarra in 2002 and we had ballet classes there too and I still felt like I couldn’t get it right – I had coaching and everything! Some things in ballet – well, actually, a lot of things – just don’t agree with my body and the way I move! But after four or five years at Bangarra I started to understand and appreciate what ballet could do for me, with the technique and discipline behind it, and I thought “oh yeah, this isn’t so bad!” I was getting to appreciate it more and respect it. It wasn’t until we did collaborated with you guys back in 2006 on the Gathering program that I saw The Australian Ballet. Just before the season, David McAllister gave us all tickets to see Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake, and I was – oh my God – totally blown away by you guys, seeing you at the peak of what you do with that style of dance. I had so much admiration for you guys, and I still do.
The feeling’s mutual! So why now to leave Bangarra? Is there a special connection with working with us that made the time feel right to leave with Warumuk, or did it just feel right personally?
I think it was more personal. For two or three years I’ve wanted to leave and every time I’ve nearly gone I’ve always come back for different reasons. But I always said to Stephen that I wanted to go out with a bang, and what better way to do that than with the Ballet? It’s such a big show and you guys are celebrating your 50 years, while I’m celebrating my little ten years with Bangarra!
Ten years is still a long time!
Yeah true! I felt that this time was right for me. I need a break from dance for a bit, and I want to go back home and get immersed back in my own culture with my people, and see family, because that’s something I always hold close to my heart and feel very strongly about, that connection with family and my culture. I just feel so honoured to be leaving the way that I am. The amount of love and support I get from Bangarra and you guys has made me feel so grateful and so blessed.
Well, I know that we feel very blessed to be working with you guys, because we know that the creation story of the night sky in Warumuk is sacred, and about Stephen and David (Page)’s painstaking research and travelling up to Arnhem Land to seek special permission to tell it. There’s just so much love in it. I would go out onstage every night and think “woah, am I really here? Am I really being let into this world?” But then I thought about it some more and thought “hang on, this is the story of Australia, I’m an Australian woman, maybe it’s my story too?”
Yes, exactly. It is.
It gives me such fulfilment and pride to be allowed to share the telling of that story with you guys, the custodians of our original culture. It’s been really special for all of us. With your deep understanding of this culture, what do you think about the way that we’ve taken on your story and your movement, do you think we’ve done OK?!
Yeah, definitely! I sort of feel like you guys are The Brady Bunch, and we’re The Cosby Family, and we’re all living together now, so maybe there’s going to be a be a bit of blood, sweat and tears but there’s also going to be a lot of love and laughs as well! You’re practically like brothers and sisters to us, ever since Bangarra did Rites back in 1997, and up ’til now we’ve always had that special connection with you guys. Over the years we’ve bonded with a lot of you dancers, so it’s like you’ve already been adopted into our culture, into our family. Stephen entrusts his choreography to you because I think he believes that you feel strongly about our stories and our culture. I mean, you guys just got straight in there, no mucking around…
We didn’t have time to muck around!
… yeah exactly! That’s it, hey? You were just thrown straight into it, but it’s amazing to see you guys pick things up so quickly. I mean, there might be certain movements that require you to be upside down or on your shoulders, which you’re not so used to, but learning from us, you pick it all up so quickly. For me it’s such a valuable thing to have, that closeness with you guys as dancers. And you know, some of us have brought you in closer to the company, like there’s a few that have really connected. Like Jake (Mangakahia) – he’s got the same middle name as me so I call him Nassam. And the other guys, we call them Bala, which means cousin or brother, and our girls are calling you girls Sissy and all that – we use all that language up in the Torres Strait. So there’s not only that dance language. There’s connection through everything – even when painting up, you guys are very respectful of what we do. The Ballet guys come up and ask me “is this the way that we’re supposed to paint up?” Because you know, painting up, that’s very sacred to us too, there’s a ceremony in all of that, and it’s really good to see the younger guys having that real respect for it.
So in a way, it’s really fitting that this final season for you involves passing on your understanding of the culture, sharing that with us, and now you’re moving on to sharing your experience back with your people.
Yeah, definitely. I have to tell you a story. In Morning Star, you know how all the Bangarra and Ballet men are painted up? When Mum came to see the show she did not know which one I was! She just thought that everyone was a Bangarra dancer! That just goes to show how much the Ballet guys have picked up that style of dance. I just think “oh my God, you’re just amazing!”
My parents said the same thing! They asked “were you the one in the purple dress in Seven Sisters?” They said that we all really looked like sisters! Actually, Stephen said that too!
Yeah, I know!
A lot of people have commented on that actually, the way Bangarra and Ballet become one, and all of us feel so honoured to know that we’ve managed to pick up that language. I mean, when I watch a Bangarra show, I come away feeling so overwhelmed by how personal the expression is, because the stories are told by dancers who know them deeply and have such an intrinsic connection with them. The sincerity of the Bangarra performances have such a profound impact on me. It’s wonderful to know that when we are onstage with you guys, we are successfully sharing that with the audience!
Oh yeah, definitely. And we feel it from you guys. We can feel that energy onstage. I think it was Jake and Cameron (Hunter) who were telling some of the backstage crew how they felt about Warumuk, and they were saying that they had never felt anything like that in their life, that kind of energy and spirit when we’re out onstage. They said that it meant a lot to them and they felt really strong about it. I can imagine you girls feel exactly the same, because I see it in you onstage. It’s just awesome to have that connection with you guys.
Yeah, it sure is. Even from the creation process, I loved when the Bangarra ladies were teaching us how to do the traditional walking step, telling us to imagine kicking up the dusty earth with our feet. I love thinking of that every show. Something else that people have talked about is the, I guess, socio-cultural statement of the merging of our two companies. Is that something that is ever in your consciousness?
I definitely do feel very strong about my culture. But you see, I can’t even say “there’s a time and place” to be outspoken about your culture because we carry it in our blood, we carry the blood of our ancestors in our blood, and it’s something that’s always there. I feel really strong about that. There’s times when you can let that all out, especially when we’re involved in cultural events, there’s times when you’ll see my culture much more evident in me. You know, when I’m with my own people I talk the language and all that stuff and that’s when it’s more present, but if I’m onstage or if I’m walking up the road … it depends what circumstances I’m in.
Yeah, I guess I find the subject interesting because it does provoke thought within me, about the beauty of artistic collaboration and the uniting effect it has. For me, I guess being half-Indonesian and growing up in very multicultural schools means that I’ve been exposed to lots of different cultures from a young age, to the point that in daily life the separation of cultures doesn’t cross my mind. But I do think it’s important that collaborations like this exist to remind audiences of that commonality. I guess someone could write a whole essay about it! Maybe I will one day?!
My uncle Rendra was a very outspoken human rights activist in Indonesia – he would read his provocative poetry in public and perform his plays amidst the oppressive political landscape of 1970s Indonesia. He always taught me that the role of an artist is to be a voice for the people, to improve their lives. So the role of art is to transmit these messages, which I guess in our case is sharing the deepest heart of Australian culture, from its origins with our first people to its current diversity. Dance really is unity.
That’s true. When I’m onstage I’m representing my family, my culture and my people, like I have them up onstage with me spiritually. It’s something I feel strong about when I’m dancing. I’m lucky that I am in a position to do that, being in an Indigenous company, I can tell those stories through dance up there onstage. It’s one way that I feel like I’m really contributing back to my people.
I still want to be able to dance for a few more years, while I’m still young, so to speak, but I definitely want to go back out into my community where I come from and teach dance, and teach the kids that they can leave home and pursue a career in dance or the entertainment industry, because there’s not that many opportunities up there in far north Queensland or other rural and regional areas for the arts. I just see so much potential in the young kids when I go back home, and they see me as a role model. I really want to be able to contribute back to my own community. Hopefully the next up-and-coming dancer from Mackay or Townsville or Cairns or the Torres Strait Islands can feel like they can do what I am doing, so that younger ones can look at them as role models and so on. I think it’s vital that we still keep our tradition and tell our stories through song, music, art and dance – you know, it’s in our blood, that’s what we do. I just want to carry that tradition on for future generations.
Don’t miss Bangarra’s next performance, Frances Rings’ Terrain, with music by David Page.