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For First Nations choreographer and dancer Amrita Hepi, the body is the first point of memory. Her new show, The Tender, interweaves oppression and connection. “Dancing is about being unashamed in our physical forms, and that’s tough shit when you’re a person of colour ’cause we’re constantly being looked at.”

By Winnie Siulolovao Dunn.

The perpetual motion of choreographer Amrita Hepi

Amrita Hepi.
Credit: Nikki To

When I arrive at the cobblestone alleyway outside the side entrance to the Royal Academy of Dance in Sydney’s Darlinghurst, it is raining. Amrita Hepi opens the door: “Aye, sis, come in!” Her accent is classic Townsville out-there and I love it. Her tone reminds me of all my Tongan aunties and sisters sitting on ngatu and cackling, “Sai ke tau ‘ilo”, a turn of phrase used sarcastically in my family that means, “Good to know.”

The Bundjalung/Ngāpuhi dancemaker, choreographer, writer and advocate leads me into a white-brick ballet studio and introduces Zachary Lopez, Ivey Wawn and Rhiannon Newton, whom she has been choreographing for months in the lead-up to her show for The National at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Alongside 23 other artists, all engaging with the concept of the political, personal and poetic spheres between chaos and control, Amrita’s work, The Tender, is set to be performed on March 31, April 24 and June 1. Representatives from various major galleries will be coming today to see how far the work has progressed.

In The Tender, ropes are a metaphor of mixed meaning. They have been used as an agent of violence and restraint within racial oppression, but also as a tool of resistance, connecting marginalised people. The act of skipping uses ropes to move with and alongside dancers, bringing multilayered object and human together in nuanced ways. In the centre of the studio floor, I watch the dancers stretching on two deep blue skate ramps. I take a seat in the corner. Amrita has joined the stretching, too. Her red socks match the skipping ropes. Her navy blue adidas trackies blend into the ramp beneath her. Everything in this studio – from the walls, to the props, to the clothes on moving bodies – is connected and I realise Amrita has made it this way.

Having known her for two years, I understand dancing has always been Amrita’s mana. Born in Townsville, she moved to Sydney because her mum needed support networks that were unavailable to her in Queensland. Amrita danced in her childhood living room to classic pop stars such as Beyoncé and Michael Jackson, while also being exposed to Māori, corroboree and other South Pacific movements during her upbringing. Over noodle soup in Cabramatta one time, I remember her telling me how her formal dance training began when she was nine years old, in a community centre for kids in her neighbourhood.

“I would poke my head up to the window, try to memorise the movements in my head and then I’d run off to hide and practise it on my own,” she said. “I swear, once every session the dance teacher would come out and ask if I wanted to join in and I’d be like, ‘Nah. No. No way.’ But I was so keen that Mum had to enrol me.”

The dinner hum in Cabramatta got louder but Amrita continued: “Then I was in high school picking the latest tracks I wanted to jam to and practising over and over and then showing off with my friends and it was like we were doing something together that we all knew. It was then I realised that I wanted dancing to be a part of my life, so I studied at NAISDA [dance college on the NSW Central Coast] and Alvin Ailey in New York. I lived in New York and learnt so much over there, but it’s real expensive.” She raised her eyebrows at me, “But hey, least I got to say I did my time in the Big Apple.” She laughs to herself, a warm belly laugh, and I giggle along too, though I’m unsure why. Maybe New York was so hectic it was funny.

I’m always impressed when Amrita tells me all the places she’s been – even just for her job. I spend 98 per cent of my life in Western Sydney. I know we both come from an ancestral lineage of navigators, who took on the ocean and always found islands in the middle of the deep Pacific blue, but Mounty County sticks to me like used gum on a new pair of TNs.

I once asked Amrita if the pace of her life ever gets exhausting.

She smiled, the corners of her lips reaching up towards her eyes. “It’s a privilege to travel but I think I enjoy it more than other art-makers. Connecting with another dancer who is also living a kind of in-between life is always very special to me because I think there’s an understanding of sacrifice to the craft,” she said.

“I’m not sure about pace. But I know what helps me when I’m travelling for long periods is the words of André Lepecki, where he says something like ‘a dancer’s labour is inseparable from the conditions of the world and, therefore, to acknowledge the affective charge of each performance cannot but resonate with and be informed by such conditions which only the fiction of representation could turn into something external’. I think it means when you have a bad day you just have the bad day but a good day… that’s where I took something to work and alchemised it for myself into the world… Or something like that.”

Back in the studio, rehearsals are unfolding. The three dancers pull, buck, skip, embrace and release at red ropes tied around their waist, moving together like slow-motion Beyblades. Amrita watches on, her jaw locked, rigid beneath her brown skin. Her black eyes move up and down, mimicking the pace of an ura, a type of Cook Islands dance. She calls out to me across the space: “Choreographing is a lot like editing. I’m here to remove the laziness, refine the necessary and give physical to the idea, the thought.” This kind of physicality to thinking is the foundation of her practice as a First Nations woman. She believes the body is the first point of archive, memory and resistance. “Dancing is about being unashamed in our physical forms,” she explains, “and that’s tough shit when you’re a person of colour ’cause we’re constantly being looked at.”

Before I met Amrita, I knew of her only through Instagram, where I spent ages scrolling through her feed, every picture and video a radical post and a testament to her range of abilities. Here she is in ink-black dress crinkled like bark branching inwards with brown arms to mould the world in her hands. There she is in all red, weaving her bamboo spine above a black stage. Now emerging through blue sky and through dark hands of the South Pacific. Then, in foil emergency blanket couture dripping pounamu, her hands weaving in and out, in and out like fish through water.

 

The dancers call for a break; hand-clapping signals the quick end to rehearsals. I jump at the harsh sound and Amrita chuckles. We sit on the floor and I confess to her that I know nothing about dance. We laugh together in talanoa and she brings up something I do know: books.

“My favourite authors are bell hooks and Naomi Klein,” she says, stretching her legs between each sentence, “and I love Comfort Food by the sis Ellen van Neerven and The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. Honestly, a good book needs to make me laugh as well as feel and think and move. It’s that kind of literature that informs my thinking and practice.”

I nod and tell her I think it’s funny that, even though she’s a dancer, I haven’t seen her actually dance yet. She promises we will get there, that she will get me dancing one day. “Choreographing takes a lot of my time,” she says. “When I’m a dancer, I feel like I am a vessel to a greater image that is working at a scale. I trust that the choreographer, the dramaturge, the director, the set designer, the lighting person and the costume designer are doing incredible framing. They are the eyes. They are seeing the mise en scène. When I am the dancer, I remind myself to surrender to the physical language in order to understand all this new and incredible information. I surrender but remain responsible and that takes trust and work.”

I ask her whether she enjoys being the choreographer as much as being the dancer.

“Yeah, girl, I love it! I get to be the eyes, the nose and the guts of a work. I’m still learning about what it means to be responsible in the room and to shift between dancer and director very quickly if I’m performing in my own stuff. But I like figuring things out as I go with people who are doing the same thing. I get to make what I believe needs to be danced and seen.” She gives my shoulders a squeeze and then stretches upwards to stand. “Which reminds me…”

Representatives from various art galleries and performance spaces enter the rehearsal studio. Amrita’s hands are on her hips, the laugh lines in her face smooth as peanut butter. In the ballet mirror, six blond heads hover in a white-brick room ready to watch what needs to be seen. “Yaama. Kia-ora. Welcome,” Amrita begins. I still haven’t left my corner of the studio as the dancers begin showcasing their performance. They move in complete unison even when they are in opposition to one another. Passing ropes, mimicking twirls, the thapthapthap of skipping on concrete, the hollow wompwompwomp of many feet running over wooden skate ramps and the hmphmphmph of heavy breathing through sweat. Everything comes together in hues of blue and red that are pulled up from the depths of Amrita’s imagination and onto the floor.

As a Tongan woman, I believe indigenous peoples have a way of holding cyclical time and the sacredness of our many lands together. There is a mutual understanding when two or many different indigenous cultures come together to talanoa, to korero and to yarn. In my culture, Amrita would be recognised as a punake – an esteemed history keeper through poetry, movement and song. And this title is the only way I can comprehend her award-winning life’s work – it is the coming together of allegories through marginalised bodies.

A week later, when I next hear from her, Amrita tells me she has since travelled to Melbourne, completed a residency at Critical Path with Fijian contemporary dancer, choreographer and poet Jahra “Rager” Wasasala and held a book club session with RUSSH magazine. “Hoi, what else you got going?” I ask her, surprised at how well she can keep up with her own schedule.

Amrita tells me about her future: showings of Le Dernier Appel (The Last Cry) with Marrugeku in Europe, performances at WOMADelaide and Dance Massive, showings of A Call to Dance in Aotearoa and a few yet-to-be-named residencies in Sydney and overseas. “I’m really focused on keeping my work going in new and old forms,” she says. “But I’m also really committed to a sense of rigour and routine. It’s so easy to get lost in the moving in-between movement. Time is precious and attention is an economy.” 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 30, 2019 as "Moving stories". Subscribe here.

Winnie Siulolovao Dunn
is a Tongan-Australian writer and editor.