Published in 3008 Docklands magazine
On stage at the Arts Centre this September, Bangarra Dance Theatre presents Belong, a unique exploration of the lives of urban Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. This is a new generation of Indigenous storytellers, using a powerful new language that combines the traditional and the contemporary to tell the story of their own cultural identity.
Bangarra Dance Theatre is Australia’s premier Indigenous performing arts company. Since 1989, the Sydney-based company has been presenting invigorating performances that embrace and celebrate Australian Indigenous culture, performing to over 50,000 people around Australia and the world.
One of Bangarra’s lead dancers, Daniel Riley McKinley, says the focus on identity gives dancers and audiences a chance to challenge preconceived ideas about Aboriginality, and to explore different ways of connecting to the past.
“Every year we do a show that challenges our identity and the issues involved in it,” he says. While the dancers are all from Indigenous bloodlines, Bangarra places traditional values and customs in a contemporary context, challenging the ways audiences are used to seeing Aboriginal culture.
“There’s no straight-out traditional dance, but we get to touch on that energy and show our contemporary version of it,” Daniel says. “It’s about reconnecting with culture and tracing the indigenous bloodline, and exploring what it means to be Aboriginal in a fresh context.”
In Bangarra’s tradition of presenting double-barrel performances, Belong is made up of two works. ID, choreographed by artistic director Stephen Page, explores the search for identity in the 21st century, connecting the spirit of tradition to contemporary life. About evokes choreographer Elma Kris’s Torres Strait Island heritage through a focus on the natural landscape, with references to the wind as it moves across the land, sea and sky.
Both pieces take inspiration from personal observations of people tracing their bloodlines and reconnecting with traditional culture. “They’re both quite personal stories,” Daniel says. “They both have elements of exploring family and past generations and the history of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders. These are the things that people run their life by- their identity. It’s about investigating what it means to be Aboriginal.”
The question of identity is something that Daniel definitely relates to. Daniel’s bloodline runs through the Riley clan of the Wiradjuri people, from the Wellington area in western New South Wales, but his connection to his Indigenous heritage hasn’t always been so simple.
“I’m probably the fairest-skinned out of everyone in the company,” he says. “When I was younger, I had that whole, ‘Well, you don’t have dark skin, you can’t be Aboriginal.’ And that’s a huge misconception- that to be Aboriginal you have to have black skin, you have to live in the desert in a humpy and go hunting. It’s just not true.”
Daniel has been dancing professionally since 1998, and joined Bangarra in 2007, debuting with the Clan and True Stories tours around Australia. Last year, he made his choreographic debut with Riley, a deeply personal piece based on the life of his cousin, Aboriginal photographer and filmmaker Michael Riley.
Through dance, Daniel has found a way to tell these stories and connect to his heritage. “What you learn is that there are different ways to access Indigenous culture,” he says. “Whether it be through dance, or art, or any visual medium, or even just through sitting around and chatting- this is just our way of exploring identity.”
“Whether you’re black skinned, white skinned, or middle skinned, whether you have long hair, straight hair, or curly hair, it doesn’t matter. What’s important is that you can connect to that culture. It’s your choice whether you want to connect to your heritage and bloodline, and if you do choose to, you can explore what it means to you in your own way.”