Sydney's Bangarra Dance Theatre present a new work, their first for 2013, dramatising the transition from childhood into adulthood and from an ancient past to an uncertain future. Artistic director Stephen Page and emerging choreographer Daniel Riley McKinley combine forces in a powerful study of Indigenous rites of passage.
It comprises three movements. The first, 'Scar', choreographed by McKinley, brings together the company's male ensemble. In the second, 'Yearning', Stephen Page works together with the female ensemble, before the night closes with a combined performance, co-choreographed with Page and McKinley, called 'Keepers'.
This is McKinley's second major work with Bangarra. His first, Riley, produced when he was just 24, made him the youngest choreographer to have worked with the company. Now 27, the QUT graduate is excited to be taking his work to a new level, collaborating with the company's legendary artistic director.
Time Out speaks with McKinley ahead of Blak's premiere.
Daniel, tell us how the idea of rites of passage figures in this new work.
With the first piece, 'Scar', it's sort of like men's business, a chance for us in the company to ask what our rites of passage might be, because we're not a part of traditional ceremonies, the traditional initiation ceremonies. We live in Sydney, in an urban environment, so we have to question what our moment of transition is, what our ascension to manhood really is.
I think with 'Keepers', Stephen and I are collaborating, we have been looking at how we, as a contemporary clan, can keep all the cultural experiences we've gained from all different parts of Australia, how we can keep that relevant to – and integral to – a contemporary Indigenous audience.
What exposure have you had to traditional rites of passage while researching this piece?
Earlier in the year we spent two weeks with Djakapurra Munyarryun, a long term cultural consultant with the company, and also Kathy Marika, who is also a cultural consultant. We spent a week with Djakapurra and his family which for me was very much about immersing myself within his family and within his land and within his story, from where he comes from.
Did that experience come before the theme of initiation was arrived at?
The whole thing really started with conversations with Djakapurra. I've known Djakapurra since I joined Bangarra in 2007. He has these incredible scars across his chest, and we got to talking about what they were and what they represented. That got me to thinking, "What's my initiation ceremony living here in Sydney."
Was it harder for Stephen to go through that process of immersion, working with women?
I know that he felt quite nervous at the beginning, to be the only male in that room creating on women, about women. But he's very aware of what's happening, both within communities and within the company. He's so clearly aware of all of us, so I think he really relished the opportunity to create something really powerful for the ladies.
So tell me about some of the psychological insights you were able to take away from your time with Djakapurra Munyarryun? What is a rite of passage?
Moments of manhood are definitely more of a greyish area living here in an urban environment. Is it owning a home? Having children? Earning your own money? Being the only male left in your family? As men in the company we range from 20 to 30, so we all have different ideas. The only thing we have in common is that we all work at Bangarra, and that we've all come here for the one purpose. So it was really interesting to sit down with the men and hear how they feel in terms of their manhood.
Before you came to this project, before you sat down with Djakapurra Munyarryun, had you been conscious of a lack of ceremony associated with coming of age?
Subconsciously there must have been something there. For me, I spent much of last year questioning myself and my decisions in life, how each decision affects my loved ones and the people that surround me.
Do you remember a time or occasion where you thought to yourself, Ah, well now I'm a man?
No, and this is the thing. If anything I guess it would have been when I first joined Bangarra. In my fourth week here I celebrated my 21st birthday. At 21 I was completely self-sufficient. I didn't have to rely on Mum or Dad for money. I got to and from work every day. I earned money and I spent it. It was that sense of accomplishment that really got it for me.
Then, if I look back again, in 2010 I created my first work for the company. To sit in the audience and watch something that I created was a huge sense of accomplishment. I was quite surprised actually. From concept through creation to product, I did that. That was another one of those moments that made me think, Oh, is this it? You know, we don't question it very much anymore.
For you, was this transition into manhood, gradual as it was, accompanied by greater insight into and awareness of your Indigenous heritage?
Yes. Being at Bangarra – and it was the reason I come to Bangarra – is to be surrounded by that culture. I didn't grow up with a strong connection to that. I didn't discover that I was Indigenous until late primary school. So for me, this connection with tradition comes from Bangarra, and the different traditions that we get to dive into, depending on what story that we're teaching. We're the keepers of all these different traditions from all over Australia, and we carry those with us every day. We're the holders. We decide, when the moment comes, when to pass it on to newer members of the company, or when we're doing workshops with kids.
Do you feel like your own practice has matured or developed since your first work in 2010?
In 2011, I was just dancing, but also looking back on what I'd done, and the process of creation. The way I look at movement and create movement has changed, I think. Being my second work, I feel that I've been able to be more myself. In my first work I took other people's ideas on board.
What is it like then working with Bangarra's artistic director, someone with so much experience already under his belt?
It's been a joy. We're sharing a concept and we're sharing the ideas, and I'm constantly learning from him. He's got such a wealth of learning that I guess it could be intimidating, but for me I see it as this moment where I could tap into those 23 years of experience. He's got such a great sense of theatricality, and with the way he articulates his ideas to the dancers.