NAISDA’s new production explores the systemic inequality faced by Indigenous Australians. By Chantal Nguyen.

ATI: A Dance Reckoning of Truth, Place and Belonging

Portrait photograph of a woman with a dark figure behind her.In the background is the ocean and a golden sunset.
NAISDA’s ATI: A Dance Reckoning of Truth, Place and Belonging.
Credit: Travis De Vries

ATI: A Dance Reckoning of Truth, Place and Belonging begins before you’ve even found your seat. As you enter the theatre space, 33 dancers are standing spread out on a dappled sunlit floor. A voice calls out in song from the corner and they break out into the welcoming Dharug Dances, choreographed by NAISDA cultural tutor Stuart McMinn. These dances evoke the burawi (east coast wind), the murawung mula (emu man) and the walumil (shark). Their connection to Country reminds you that, despite the youth of the dancers, Indigenous dance performed with heart immediately places you in the presence of something incomprehensibly ancient.

ATI is the latest performance from NAISDA Dance College, famous as the birthplace of Australian Indigenous modern dance and the incubator for Bangarra Dance Theatre. I was a little starstruck to see 83-year-old Carole Johnson, the African–American dancer who founded both NAISDA and Bangarra, sitting in the audience. NAISDA’s students – known at the school as developing or practising artists – are selected from auditions across Australia and the Torres Strait Islands, to be tutored in the performing arts and nurtured in cultural practices to become the next generation of Indigenous artists.

As with much Indigenous modern dance, ATI explores the systemic inequality that has beset Indigenous Australians for generations. It is the brainchild of Deon Hastie, NAISDA’s head of dance, and consists of 17 chapters or vignettes, 14 of which he choreographed in collaboration with McMinn, rehearsal director Angie Diaz and the NAISDA students. The dances are performed on a stage illuminated by Tetsuya Tabata’s remarkable animations, which engagingly evoke a time, place or emotion without ever distracting from the dancing.

“Ati” means “journey” in the Meriam Mir language of the Torres Strait Islands, and Hastie explains that developing ATI was itself a healing journey confronting Indigenous experiences of violence, forced assimilation, cultural genocide and inequality. Despite the heavy themes, ATI is realistic without lapsing into bitterness. Its young artists tackle the profound subject matter without sugar-coating or affectation; bringing a bright-eyed, heartfelt commitment to the performance.

Each vignette from ATI is unique in style and message, making the evening feel as if it comprises a treasure-trove of miniature works that are all perfectly formed, intriguingly different and yet – to Hastie’s credit – cohesive. Such variety also gives the NAISDA artists a chance to explore different dance styles and to play with a spectrum of emotional tones.

Since it is one of the joys of being a young dancer to possess athletic flexibility and emotional fearlessness, I would have liked to see a little more youthful risk-taking, fluidity and expansiveness of personal body space among the NAISDA artists. Overall, though, they move with a polished, unified style and a deep awareness of culture and sincere storytelling.

The first chapter after the Dharug Dances is the meditative Alteration, in which dozens of dancers form a dark gawura (whale) that blows water and swims majestically across the stage. It’s simultaneously whimsical and solemn, and demonstrates from the outset the remarkable synchronicity of the NAISDA artists, who possess an almost uncanny ability to move and perform as one. This ocean scene transforms into a beach from which stolen children are removed in the heart-rending Track Away. The children eventually become lost in the techno beats, sharp angles and unbroken lines of sprinting dancers in Spiral Torment.

The mood quietens again with Yiki, featuring a dejected female dancer (Lena Parkes) in a blue dress, seemingly lost to depression and hunted by a predatory evil spirit. Then Erasure bursts onto the stage, packed with solos from the astounding Joshua Doctor, who throws himself into movement with thrilling plasticity and reckless abandon. Even at this early stage of his career, Doctor is one of those dancers you can’t take your eyes off – one to watch in future. Doctor’s spinning leaps give way to the theatrical Confined, in which dancer Lacey Bilger finds herself captive in a sea of disembodied hands that grab her limbs at every movement. Act 1 closes with Forgotten, the music fading as a young girl in a white dress lies curled up, alone and forsaken, in the middle of the stage floor.

Act 2 begins with the lyrical Remembering, an ensemble piece featuring female dancers rounding themselves into soft curves and organic arcs of movement. It turns into the innovatively percussive Exacerbate, the music for which is almost entirely created by the dancers clapping out addictively complex rhythms. The mood then begins to crescendo with Aggress, Awaken, Indignation and Arrival. The dancers in turn bark like ferocious dogs, change their black shift dresses for T-shirts featuring the colours of the Aboriginal flag, and chant a rallying cry of “I will not be stolen! I will not be denied! I will not be shamed!”

These emotionally charged moments in ATI somehow never feel preachy. Their build-up is subtle and their context is explained in emotional rather than political terms, so the audience has the impression of carrying someone else’s feelings and memories rather than merely watching another street protest.

The rallying cries and stark spotlights give way to laughing chatter and soft sunbeams in Torres Strait Island Dances (choreographed by NAISDA cultural tutor Dujon Niue), as the female dancers re-enter the stage. Gone are the black, yellow and red protest T-shirts, replaced by colourful floral tops and grass skirts. A carpet is rolled out and a guitar and drums carried onto the stage before the boys arrive, adjusting their own grass skirts and headbands as they sit down to cheer on the women’s opening dance. This section features six story dances in the Torres Strait Islander style. The male dancers use kulaps (seed-pod dance rattles), the female dancers clap with kubar (coconut shells), and finally all dancers join in with wana (spinning tops), singing joyously in the Meriam Mir language to the guitar and drums. There is an irresistible warmth in these dances, rich with the feeling of community ties and family – so much so that the audience began to join in the cheering and singing.

The last dance piece is Dignity, a lyrical solo for Lena Parkes to Sivan Talmor and Yehezkel Raz’s “Flight of the Inner Bird”, a quietly exultant melody for piano that sounds like bright raindrops, accompanying a soaring soprano voice. The audience is then led out into the foyer for “Mara Amarik Nole”, a farewell song by Dujon Niue in the Meriam Mir language.

It’s a thought-provoking, honest and ultimately uplifting evening. With performances like this, the future of Indigenous modern dance looks bright.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 29, 2023 as "Physical therapy".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription