For decades, Australian school children have been taught that pre-colonial indigenous agriculture was limited to nomadic hunting and gathering.
It was not, in the European sense of the word, “farming”.
But all that changed with the publication of Bruce Pascoe’s award-winning Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident?, a book that debunks assumptions made by early colonialists and held for two centuries.
Pascoe, a Bunurong, Yuin and Tasmanian man, researched journals and diaries written in the early colonial period describing sophisticated systems of agriculture, aquaculture and architecture employed by indigenous peoples, all displaying deep understanding of the environment, flora and fauna, the seas and the skies.
Choreographer and former Bangarra dancer Yolande Brown says she came across the book in 2016, loaned to her by a neighbour who knew it would appeal to her passionate belief in the need to nurture and protect our environment.
“When I read it, it gave me a sense of pride but it also made me sad it needed to be written down in a book for it to be of value to our society,” says Brown. “But I think it’s fantastic if that information is accessible to so many Australians who unfortunately haven’t been able to learn about these stories and these practices. People are realising that knowledge is still there and that it can heal some of the damage being done to the land today.”
Inspired, Brown passed the book to Bangarra’s Artistic Director Stephen Page, who bumped into Pascoe and his wife Lyn Harwood two days later at the Sydney Writers Festival. When Lyn suggested Page adapt the book into a new dance work, he didn’t need further convincing.
Page invited Brown to work with him on choreographing a new dance theatre production based on Pascoe’s thesis, in partnership with senior dancer and choreographer Daniel Riley and dramaturg Alana Valentine.
Far from being a literal adaptation of Dark Emu, Bangarra’s production uses Pascoe’s research as a trigger to explore what Brown refers to as ‘the heart of the stories.’
The work has focused on the Yuin people and associated clans from La Perouse in Sydney’s south down to Twofold Bay and across to the snowy mountains, taking in those groups’ whale and bogong stories.
“We’re not presenting a collection of statistics or methods; we’re targeting the heart of the stories and of the practices, the ‘why’,” says Brown. “We’re looking at the way they came together to work the land for a common purpose; the use of fire practices where after you’ve gone through the ceremony of planting and harvesting the seeds, you burn off to put essential elements back into the earth and stimulate new growth, allowing time for the country to rest.”
The company is also exploring the connection to the baiame: the creator god and sky father whose realm included the negative space between the stars, “not what is but what’s in between,” Brown says, “it’s quite a beautiful concept.”
Focused on her choreography since taking maternity leave from dancing in 2015, Brown’s previous work includes Imprint for Bangarra’s Dance Clan 3 in 2013 and I Am Eora for Sydney Festival in 2012.
Brown is enjoying the opportunity to return to the studio to work with Bangarra’s 18 dancers, two of whom are new recruits. She’s also contributing her voice to composer Steve Francis’s score.
“I’ve never co-choreographed before but it’s really beautiful working in this capacity, we give each other a lot of space and we have a lot of trust in each other,” she says, adding that she is inspired by the number of female choreographers working in the contemporary dance space in Australia – Stephanie Lake, Narelle Benjamin and Natalie Weir among them – and Bangarra’s support of emerging and established choreographers such as Frances Rings and former dancer Deborah Brown.
“I’d definitely like the opportunity to focus more on choreography,” she says. “I think we have more stories to tell and I particularly love sharing indigenous stories because it’s so important for people to be able to learn, and it helps me continue learning my culture.”
Dark Emu plays the Sydney Opera House June 14 – July 14 before touring nationally.