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First Nations performing arts profiled on global stage

JanArtsNYC attracts over 45,000 performing arts leaders and artists to New York, but has lacked an Indigenous focus – until now.
First Nations performing arts profiled on global stage

Sarah-Jane (S.J.) Norman, a cross-disciplinary artist and writer, who attended the First Nations Dialogues at JanArtsNYC. Pictured is Norman's work Corpus Nullius/Blood Country (2011). Image by Penelope Benton.

A landmark meeting of First Nations artists from Australia and North America was held this month at JanArtsNYC (formerly known as January in NYC), one of the largest and most significant theatre sector gatherings in the world.

It is hoped the discussions held between First Nations peoples at the event will develop into a long term strategy for the Australian and North American Indigenous performing arts sectors, including trans-Pacific cultural and social exchange between First Nations artists.

The series of conversations and provocations at JanArtsNYC were led by Native American Yupi’k choreographer Emily Johnson from Catalyst Dance; Australian First Nations Tiwi and Larrakia presenter and producer, Angela Flynn, from Kukuni Arts; Australian First Nations Wemba-Wemba and Gunditjmara artist, curator, writer and lecturer Paola Balla; and BlakDance, Australia’s national peak body for Indigenous dance.

Native American arts leaders including Muriel Miguel, Director and founding member of Spiderwoman Theatre, and Diane Fraher, the founder of AMERINDA were also in attendance.

The organisers were supported by brokerage from New York based Australian presenter Vallejo Gantner, whose commitment to increasing the visibility of First Nations work saw presenting networks and institutions encouraged to participate in long-overdue dialogues with First Nations artists.

Presented collaboratively by 11 partner organisations, the cluster of events presented under the JanArtsNYC umbrella is identified as a priority market by the Australia Council for the Arts, and attracts more than 45,000 performing arts leaders and artists from across the globe.

Paola Balla's workshop The Future Isn’t Colonised, January 2018. Photo credit: Da Ping Luo for Performance Space.

Significantly, the First Nations Dialogues built on foundations laid down several decades ago by Bob Maza (the co-founder, with Jack Charles, of Australia’s first Aboriginal theatre company, Nindethana) who forged ties with the founders of Spiderwoman Theatre and Harlem’s Black Theatre during a visit to New York in 1970.

‘Our elders and our pioneers, both here and in North America, forged these kinds of relationships 40 or 50 years … and it felt like we as a new generation were really treading pathways that had been laid down by them – as we should,’ said Merindah Donnelly, Executive Producer, BlakDance.

Attending JanArtsNYC was in part a means of promoting the next generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander choreographers – the likes of Ghenoa Gela, Thomas E.S. Kelly and Joel Bray – on the international stage, said Donnelly.

‘From a BlakDance perspective, we were there to set up an international platform that would showcase the best of Australian Indigenous dance in the best market in the world – but we were also aware that we didn’t want to set up a binary where presenters got to sidestep local work from their local mob. We didn’t want them fetishising or exoticising Indigenous people from halfway across the world without having done the work in their own back yard,’ she noted.

Having such a strong First Nations presence at JanArtsNYC effectively created ‘a First Nations conference within the other 11 festivals and conferences that were on during that really busy period in New York in January – and with no funding,’ she added.

Bundjalung and Wiradjuri man Thomas E.S. Kelly is part of a new generation of Australian First Nations choreographers whose work is being championed by BlakDance. Kelly's [MIS]CONCEIVE will soon be seen at Supercell and APAM in Brisbane. Photo credit: Zan Wimberley.

Over the next two to five years, participants hope to see increased touring opportunities for First Nations performers – as well as the development of appropriate methodologies and documentation alongside showcases of First Nations performing arts – develop from the seeds that were planted in New York this month.

‘Collaboration, exchange, reciprocity are a really big part of the dialogue and the conversations but I think what we’re starting to see coming out of all of this is the opportunity to do some national mapping of presenters who are [interested in First Nations works],’ said Donnelly.

‘There’s pockets of presenters all across the USA, Canada and Australia, and New Zealand as well, who are working – some at the beginning of their journey, some in a much more sophisticated way – with First Nations performers … So there’s an opportunity to map where all those presenters are, and I think what will come out of that will be the identification of what could become a really strong touring network for Indigenous performers.’

The groundwork laid in previous years by organisations such as the Australia Council had also contributed to the development of this First Nations arts network and new opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, Donnelly said.

‘The Next Gen of Indigenous choreographers coming out of the Australian Indigenous dance sector are dynamic and hungry, their work is extraordinary. They should be prolific in the national touring circuit here in Australia, and given the opportunity, they could crack the New York scene,’ she said.

‘This strategy is about enabling a future where our artists are being presented at the pinnacle of contemporary arts. We are laying the tracks for this to happen in two to five years’ time.’

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Richard Watts

Wednesday 24 January, 2018