Elma Kris and Nicola Sabatino are both from the Torres Strait yet they never knew each other growing up.
Kris was born and raised on Waiben or Thursday Island, a cultural melting pot of around 4000 people. Sabatino grew up in Weipa in far north Queensland and regularly travelled to her father’s 300-strong hometown on nearby Hammond Island, a distance she gauges as “around six gallons of fuel in a dinghy” for ceremonies that provided her first exposure to traditional island dancing and song.
Despite not meeting until their paths intertwined at Bangarra Dance Theatre, these two dancers have a special bond: they both share the dugong as their totem.
Now they have collaborated for the first time, creating a work that pays homage to that very mammal in Whistler, a 25-minute work that forms part of a trilogy of experimental new works titled ONES COUNTRY – the spine of our stories.
Mainland Australia is still largely ignorant of the rich and varied culture of the Torres Strait Islands, inspiring Kris and Sabatino to focus on an animal that plays a key role in that part of the world.
“In the Torres Strait we have myths and legends based on bird, lizard, fire, dugong or turtle – pretty much what surrounds us on land, sea or sky,” explains Kris, a distinguished elder who joined Bangarra in 1999 after graduating from NAISDA and teaching art at the local TAFE. “Different islands have their own stories and dance and for us, telling this story was about paying homage to the cycle of the dugong.”
Although the islands have distinct song and dance, Kris describes the movement style as ‘seated’, incorporating gestures with the arms, head and feet. “[Traditionally] the only way to identify dance if it’s at night time is to wear a white material wrapped around the ankles to see the movement of the feet,” she explains. “Because we’re so dark, and we’re dancing in the dark with only a fire burning you see the white cloth moving in that darkness.”
Kris and Sabatino combined their knowledge of the dugong to create Whistler, an abstract contemporary piece choreographed on the whole company. Named for the noise the male dugong makes with its tusks when trying to escape its prey, the work explores the feeding, mating and calving cycles of the female dugong including the dangers they face from sharks, stone fish and more recently, abandoned fishing nets (so called ghost nets); and the relationship the animal has with humans, from hunting to male initiation rituals.
“It’s such a special animal for the people of the Torres Strait because it leads people into manhood, it provides medicine [oil for arthritis], it sustains us through food when we need iron and it’s a sacred totem animal. So it’s really lovely paying homage to that,” Sabatino says.
A fellow NAISDA graduate, Sabatino has been with Bangarra since 2013 but this will be the first work she has choreographed. Working with a veteran like Kris, who has choreographed numerous works from the TSI element of the Sydney Olympic Games opening ceremony in 2000 to the solo work Emeret Lu in 2007 has been a humbling experience. “I’ve always respected Elma, so working as her partner in crime I’ve learned so much, from sitting and listening to how Elma leaves things out to how Elma dreams about music and movement. It’s been absolutely mind boggling,” she says.
Whistler will be presented alongside two other works from company members: Place from dancer Kaine Sultan-Babij, which explores life as a young urban queer Indigenous man; and a new work from artistic director Stephen Page and Djakapurra Munyarryun, a founding member of Bangarra and Yolngu songman that brings to life the story of the ngathu nut, a food staple in the lead up to the wet season.
For their work Kris and Sabatino have taken a collaborative approach, choreographing with their fellow dancers although Kris says she has been inspired by the new movement and shapes Sabatino has created since returning from a residency with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York.
They started with ‘lots of yarning and sharing ideas’, expanding their insights during a tour back to country on Thursday Island earlier this year when they sat down with former dancer and cultural consultant Peggy Misi, who shared stories and taught them language. Resident composer Steve Francis’s score incorporates Misi and Sabatino speaking language along with instruments from the Torres Strait; while the startling ghost net that forms the backdrop to the set has been designed by resident designer Jacob Nash, with contemporary costumes by Jenny Irwin.
“Nicola and I, we’re related through our grandfather, we speak the same language and all come from the same totem, the dugong, so we’re humble people in our personal lives, keep to ourselves, quiet. You have others with shark totem, crocodile, they’re the ones who bite, bite, bite,” says Kris. “We’re letting the spirit of this dugong herd talk to us. It reflects on us humans. The dugong is just like us – comes from one blood, one family, one language, one songline.”