3.3 – the percentage of people in Australia who identify as Aboriginal. It’s a shockingly low number, and yet just the statistic alone speaks volumes when one considers the over-representation of Aboriginal numbers in the AFL or prison. I sat down with the remarkable Mark Howett, Artistic Director of Ochre Contemporary Dance Company to discuss the project, their collaborations, and the ways in which Aboriginal stories are being told.
So, what is 3.3 all about? It’s the brainchild and development of Indigenous dancing royalty, Michael Leslie and has been adapted from a PhD thesis.
Michael actually studied the idea that young Aboriginal men have their rite of passage going to prison. He was at university and part of his thesis was responding to this idea of young men in prison, so he incorporated a short physical dance piece as part of his thesis, that he performed as well.
Michael and I go way back to like, No Sugar and Bran Nue Day days, so I always knew that I wanted to collaborate with him. Michael dances classical but also traditional and in this work, he’s pretty torn between these two ideas. How do you show your traditional dance but also stay relevant?
Leslie is all about that authentic portrayal of traditional dance, but the techniques and moves that he learned in his classical training have also shaped his movement.
Michael is from the Eastern States and he moved to Sydney pretty early in his career, so he lost his language. What this piece reflects is his way of re-learning but also re-writing that dance language. So, it’s not completely traditional, it’s like a whole new language.
This idea of re-learning and re-interpreting a dance language is compelling. During his studies, Leslie drew upon his limited knowledge of traditional dance, his extensive knowledge of classical dance, and the concept of growth and restriction in the confines of a prison. After presenting the work as part of his studies, Leslie and Howett decided to collaborate again and turn the work into a much longer piece. Unfortunately, Leslie injured himself and could no longer perform the work as he would like to. Howett and Leslie had to re-imagine the work entirely.
So, we got young Ian Wilkes (Good Little Soldier) to play the young man in prison. Being a Noongar man, his language is entirely different. So, Michael has been a mentor to Ian, teaching him his own moves but also – Ian only dances traditional, he doesn’t have classical training, so Michael is really teaching him how to move like him. He’s changed the piece a bit as well – now it’s Ian in prison, a young Aboriginal man going through his rite of passage. He’s joined by Michael who is teaching Ian to dance but also mentoring him through his prison stay. So it’s a fusion of Noongar and Gamilaraay words that have been put into dance language.
Wilkes’ character is essentially Leslie, torn between excelling on the white fella’s world stage or staying in his country and cultivating his community and culture. Ultimately, he just wants to dance.
The whole piece really explores that idea that prison is a rite of passage for young Aboriginal men, but we’re not just talking about only gaols – it goes back to systems that Colonialism put in place. Fences around farms, massacres of people, missions, curfews, etc. You know, 3.3% is the percentage of people who identify as Aboriginal but 28% of prisoners are Aboriginal. So, it’s about owning that but also getting out the frustrations that are felt.
3.3 isn’t the only work that is being presented at Subiaco Arts Centre – the performance includes a collaboration with Chrissie Parrott and Ochre Contemporary Dance member Floeur Alder. Beyond is a poetic and surreal work that asks the performer to uncover the ‘pure’ form that often lies dormant in classical or contemporary dance – to go beyond the conventional.
Alongside the dance pieces is a screening of Kwongkan (Sand).
So, last year I did a residency with the Daksha Sheth Dance Company, in India – in an area called Kerala. It was a spiritual experience, and they were just so enlightening to be working with.
I asked if, as First Nations dancers there was much in common:
A tremendous amount. Once we started talking, we realised that the list of similarities was much longer than the differences. They are very spiritual – it’s a different sort of spirituality but it’s still about connecting to one another, and using your body as language. They have the same challenges about staying true to your roots but also being relevant in a modern world. So, the video accompanies the dance performance and it’s a great link to the pieces.
Mark acknowledges that it is incredibly important for black stories to be told from their perspective. This collaboration with Daksha Sheth opened his eyes up to how to continue telling his story.
3.3 has also been invited to form part of the program for the Berlin Be-Bop Festival in 2019.
It’s really exciting, yeah, we’re pretty proud of Michael and Ian and look forward to bringing the show to Berlin.
Mark’s own journey is similar to that of Michael Leslie’s – plucked out of Perth and sent all over Europe to learn design and collaborate with some of the edgiest theatrical minds in the world. Yet, it is how he continues to champion Aboriginal stories and themes that are important to his own life (post traumatic stress disorder, reconciling between white and black worlds) that truly asserts him as a powerful voice in the Australian and world theatre landscape.
Interview | Laura Money
You can check out 3.3 yourself, see the details below:
WHEN: 27 May – 3 June 2018 | 7:30pm (5;30pm Sundays)
WHERE: Subiaco Arts Centre
INFO: Tickets $25 – $40 | Duration 110 mins including interval | Contains coarse language, adult themes, haze and strobe effects | Wheelchair accessible