For Bangarra choreographer Frances Rings, a lifelong love of dance helped her reconcile her family truth. By Steve Dow.

Bangarra’s Frances Rings branches out with Sheoak

Frances Rings during Bangarra rehearsals.

She-oaks are casuarina trees – wildly varying evergreen native species found beside rivers, along coasts, in forests and deserts. As choreographer Frances Rings drives from her home at Ettalong on the NSW central coast to the Bangarra Dance Theatre rehearsal space at Sydney’s Walsh Bay, she notes the casuarinas on the median strip.

“If people knew what they offered in terms of medicine, it’s like a supermarket,” she says. The most common casuarina on the M1 Pacific Motorway, the black she-oak, flowers red in spring, amid foliage that can quench a thirst.

The cones of drooping she-oaks can be powdered for rheumatism and sores. The bark of the horsetail she-oak plugs a painful decayed tooth. Swamp she-oaks, as well as bangalay and stringybark eucalypts, most with large, dominant trunks and thick, fibrous bark, can be transformed into strong canoes. 

In some places, she-oaks are known as a “grandmother tree”. Frances Rings has a photo of herself as a baby, sitting on the lap of her mother, a tiny, shy, dark-skinned Kokatha woman from the western coast of South Australia. “Oh my God,” says Rings, laughing at her mother’s early ’70s miniskirt. “She was hot.” 

Rings’ father, a white German who was a fan of the blues and Neil Diamond, is sitting in shot with his guitar, his hair slicked with Brylcreem, like Elvis or Johnny Cash. Frances’s maternal grandmother is also in the photo. “When I was young, she held me,” says Rings. “She probably sang songs to me and spoke to me in language.”

Bangarra, which Rings joined as a dancer in 1993, is a part of her body. Her need to be truthful in performance – her language – forced her to confront her story: her family and identity. 

Today, hair brushed back, wearing a crocheted cream scarf, a black T-shirt rolled at the sleeves atop grey pants, shoes off but socks on, she is choreographing Sheoak, one half of Bangarra’s new national touring show, Lore. She has 15 dancers in her charge.

Across the darkened rehearsal space gingerly steps Elma Kris, a Thursday Island-born dancer, whose stage role is keeper of the she-oak. Fourteen young dancers, seven men and seven women, are paired. They huddle in a line tapering from one dancer on another’s shoulders at the back down to those clustered and crouching at front. The group embodies a tree, perhaps the last she-oak. 

Soft light across Sydney Harbour streams in through high windows, forming a silhouette around a now separate tall couple, the male gently lowering the female down head first from his shoulders, her black singlet reading in white lettering: “Trust the universe.” Within this abstraction will be placed metaphors for the contemporary ills of Indigenous Australia: closure of remote communities, unemployment. At the apex, regeneration and hope.

Rings, who turned 45 this year, recalls conducting interviews for SBS from Sydney’s Tumbalong Park on May 28, 2000, when 300,000 Australians marched for reconciliation across the Harbour Bridge. She disagrees when I suggest that social movement has been sent backwards. 

“That sort of people power can happen again; we’ve got to hold on to that,” she says. “We did it once; we can do it again. We all want the same thing. The question is how can we find the right voice, and how can we find a shared ground.”

Rings anticipates the obvious follow-up question about Tony Abbott’s recent characterisation of remote communities as “lifestyle choices”.

“His choice of words was very unfortunate,” she says. “It’s someone’s birthright, that when they’re born on country, they have cultural obligations to sustain language, law and to protect country. We need those people there. That is fundamental to our survival, even if we live in a city.”

1 . Family history

Frances and her younger sister, Gina, were born in Adelaide, the first generation in their maternal line to be born in a city and a hospital. Their mother had been born by a lake in the bush, like her traditional-living forebears. (Rings asks that her mother be referred to as Mrs Edwards in this article, out of cultural protocol and respect for an elder.)

Mrs Edwards, who was already married, met Edgar Theodore Rings, a German migrant, and bore him two children. The family spent time living at Cook, a tiny rail town on the Nullarbor Plain, in railway siding camps. 

Edgar Rings was an émigré labourer from Bad Honnef on the Rhine, who painted for the Trans-Australian Railway. Edgar was among many German rail workers who came to South Australia in the decade following World War II. They were “screened” before they left, assured an Adelaide Advertiser article anticipating the arrival of the first 500 German fitters, boilermakers and welders. Edgar learnt English phrases watching Australian television.

Frances was three, and Gina an infant, when their parents split. Their mother returned to her husband in the coastal town of Ceduna. 

Edgar took Frances and Gina with him to Port Augusta, a hot, dry, small regional city 300 kilometres north of Adelaide, a seaport and a railway junction, and a crossroads entry to both the Nullarbor and the central desert. In Port Augusta, he met and married the girls’ stepmother, a Noongar woman from Western Australia, who already had a daughter, Deidre. The couple had three more children in quick succession, all boys. 

Frances choreographed her first show when she was five years old, in her Port Augusta backyard, in 1975. Edgar converted a backyard water tank into a cubbyhouse. In Frances’s imagination, the backyard tank was a castle. 

She would fetch curtains and towels for shows and make costumes. Frances cast herself as queen, or head princess; she assigned Gina, her seemingly inseparable shadow, as maid; Deidre plumped for playing Frances’s compliant husband. 

Frances and Gina twirled like twin ballerinas. They had seen ballet on TV, as well as Michael Jackson, and Young Talent Time. They loved to nick their stepsister’s toys. They’d never had such treasures. “You know what?” Deidre would joke with Frances, years later, “you never had any rhythm.” 

Frances was always daydreaming. “I probably would be diagnosed as being on the spectrum now,” she laughs. She always knew she was Aboriginal: some white primary school kids hissed nasty names. Edgar, having suffered suspicion as a German migrant, encouraged her to be proud of being Aboriginal. She credits him with her determined spirit. But while he wanted his family to be proud of their heritage, Edgar and his wife could not afford to keep six children. 

One day, when Frances was eight, she woke up, and thought six-year-old Gina must have gone to the shops. 

“I can remember it was really strange,” says Rings, “because she had been given this doll. I thought, ‘Why are they giving her a doll?’ We never got given a doll. ‘Wow, she’s getting a doll. That’s awesome.’

“Then she was gone.”

Gina had been quietly fostered out to a Noongar family in Port Augusta. Edgar packed the rest of the brood off to Kalgoorlie. The family, often moving, somehow lost track of Gina. 

“You can’t take those experiences away from someone,” says Rings. “That’s a scar. That’s something you live with for life.” 

Within months, Edgar and his wife separated, making Frances a “mini-mum”, who sometimes had to stay home from school to help Deidre look after their three little brothers while Edgar travelled for work. 

Aged nine, Frances was playing one day outside their Kalgoorlie home. A community bus pulled up, with black faces peering out. 

“Oh, who’s on that bus?” Frances wondered. 

Edgar came out of the house and demanded she go inside. “You don’t look out the window!” 

Inside the bus was Mrs Edwards, who had come to find her eldest daughter. But Edgar didn’t want Frances to have anything to do with her mother.

2 . Finding the truth

At 18, Frances Rings came to study dance in Sydney, at the National Aboriginal Islanders Skills Development Association (NAISDA) Dance College. Here, she realised she must shed shyness and shame to be a truthful dancer on stage. 

One day, another dance student was chatting about her Noongar boyfriend from South Australia. It turned out the boyfriend’s brother was dating Frances’s sister, Gina. Frances had not seen Gina in more than a decade.

Uncannily, 17-year-old Gina Rings was applying to study dance, too, in Adelaide, trying to find her own confidence. Years later, Gina would make a short film, Ngoppun, which in Ngarrindjeri means “to walk”, about four young girls in the Flinders Ranges. The shyest was based on Gina as a child.

Frances got on a plane to Adelaide and was reunited with her sister. Frances joined Bangarra, then Gina joined, and the two danced on stage together. They were starting from scratch. It took years before a rapport was built to allow a big conversation about the missing years. That conversation remains private.

How to explain, despite growing up separately, they both became dancers? “Sometimes,” says Rings, “when you can’t find a voice, when you don’t have the self-esteem – as humans, you want to communicate, and I think dance afforded us a way of expression, of dealing with a lot of hurt and pain we couldn’t understand as children. Because people didn’t talk about things.”

Rings began phoning the area she believed her mother might be, but was told Mrs Edwards had died. Then she discovered, no, her mother was living in the Koonibba Indigenous community at Ceduna. In 1989, at 19, Rings caught a light plane from Adelaide to Ceduna airport – a grass strip with a tin shack – to be greeted by a sea of black family faces, waving and crying. She knew her mother the moment they laid eyes on one another. 

Late one night – the first time Frances brought Gina to meet their mother – Frances heard high-pitched spirit voices carried on a wind. She went to her mother, sleeping on the verandah, and lay next to her. 

“Once I laid down beside her I could feel them around us, the old spirits, and then they went,” Rings told Leah Purcell in the 2002 book Black Chicks Talking. “I’m not sure whether it was a dream or it was for real, but it was nice. Her touch, her smell … yeah, that was good. Then in the morning when we awoke, we’d slept right next to each other all night and that felt great.”

Over the next 25 years, Rings learnt from her mother that health, family, food and living on country made you rich. Recent letters to her mother about royalties, from a mining company digging by the lake where Mrs Edwards had been born, remained unopened. 

Both her parents individually saw Rings dance. In 2000, they both attended the wedding of Rings to artist Scott Clement at Coledale beach, north of Wollongong. Rings’s father died in 2011, but she had long made peace with Edgar for splitting the family. At the time of his death, Rings was researching a show she was to choreograph about Lake Eyre or Kati Thanda, dedicated to her father. Terrain was performed by Bangarra the following year.

Last year, Rings’ small and shy yet strong and fierce mother died. Before the funeral on country, and helping to set up the sorry camp for mourning Mrs Edwards, Rings flew with her children Yillen, 8, and Zef, 6, to Adelaide, then hired a car and drove them to Ceduna. 

They retraced her parents’ rail-crossed pathways, and the Port Augusta years. “It’s amazing how over time your memories are so embellished,” she says. “You go, ‘Oh God, we were so poor! This was a slum’,” she laughs. “But at the time, it wasn’t a slum to us. That was our home. That’s where we laughed and were fed. We had everything.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 13, 2015 as "Family trees".

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Steve Dow
is a Melbourne-born, Sydney-based arts writer.

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