Bangarra Culture

Erin Brannigan talks to Patrick Thaiday

Patrick Thaiday, Bush

Patrick Thaiday, Bush

Patrick Thaiday first appeared with Bangarra Dance Theatre in Walkabout (2002) and his solo in Frances Rings’ piece for that work (Rations) was a standout performance. Having grown up in a culturally diverse family of traditional dancers, Thaiday’s technique—his speed, fluidity and grace—is impressive. I spoke to him at the beginning of rehearsals for Stephen Page’s new full-length work, Bush, which is inspired by Arnhem Land. Thaiday describes learning from his family, training at NAISDA and working within the culture of Bangarra Dance Theatre.

 

Can you tell us a bit about your background?

I’ve found out more about my background in the last couple of years, especially from my dad’s side of the family. He’s from Lifu in the South Sea Islands. I went away on one of the cultural camps with the NAISDA College up to Yam Island last year. My dad’s family is from there and I spoke to his brother or cousin-brother and he told me a bit about where the family came from which was great ‘cause my dad has passed away. My mother told me when I was 12 or 13 about my ancestors from her side. They originally came from Jamaica.

All of this has obviously influenced your dancing.

Definitely. I blame my mum and dad for that. [Both were] pretty much involved in traditional Torres Strait Island dancing.

It’s in your blood.

It’s a gift I’ve been blessed with. My brothers and sisters dance as well. I was choreographing when I was about 14 and had my brothers and sisters, cousins and friends perform with me. That was contemporary dance but I’m also a traditional dancer. I never really had anyone teach me contemporary styles. It was all through watching different dancers who were in Mackay at the time. I did see a few performances by Theatre Arts Mackay, the dance school up there, and other mediums like television, video clips…this was the 80s. But with the traditional side of things, I had my family, my uncles, my father, they all taught me about my culture and our way of dancing.

Is choreography something you’d like to pursue or is it dancing that interests you most?

I’d like to do both. But I would like to steer towards choreography ‘cause I’m gettin’ on a bit! [Laughs]…It’s something I really enjoy.

Did your time at NAISDA change your approach to dance?

You know, dance in its purest form for me would be traditional. To try and fuse the two, I didn’t really agree with it. But at NAISDA they deal with the mixture of both. It opened my eyes a bit. NAISDA has given me the strength and the courage to pursue a career in contemporary dance. And it’s what Bangarra’s all about—putting the two together. I still have a love for the jazz style. That’s something I want to look into more. Bangarra’s a stepping stone for me.

The dance you were exposed to at NAISDA, could you click into it fairly easily?

Actually, yeah. The teachers there were former students at the school and, being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent, there were certain styles and techniques they would use in their choreography that I had witnessed in the traditional Aboriginal communities. After a while, it was like I was at home practicing traditional dances [but] in a different environment.

Do you specialise in particular traditional dances?

I like the dances that use props. The bow and arrow dance, kulap dance—that’s a traditional Torres Strait Island instrument that’s made out of shells or a seed, it’s like a rattler. I’ve learned so many different dances—not only from my dad’s island, Yam Island, which is the central island in the Torres Strait, but from Murray Island which is on the eastern side. There are different styles of dance on each of the islands. A lot of the dances are based on the lifestyle up there. We’ve got the ocean around us and a lot of the elders sing about the ocean and about hunting, gathering food.

You had 6 weeks on secondment to Leigh Warren & Dancers when you finished at NAISDA. How would you compare the way a company like that operates to Bangarra?

The standard of dance was oh-my-god! I felt really intimidated at first. I couldn’t pick up the movements—especially the ballet because I only got exposed to ballet when I went to NAISDA and I was like 29! But [experiencing] that sort of work and that style of dance and seeing the strength they had in their technique really pushed me to try harder.

I feel a lot more at home in Bangarra. The company is very sensitive and supportive of my needs on the cultural side of things. It has the involvement of the elders and they have input into Stephen’s choreography and production. I feel a lot safer at Bangarra and my biggest inspiration was here—Russell Page who has recently passed on—just watching him dance and seeing that he was diverse in his dance…

Being in Bangarra for me is more grounded and it answers a lot of questions I have about dance [and] my identity, where I’m from. Stephen incorporates all that in his productions. I love that. Whenever I dance about my culture, about my people, you know the traditional style of things, it makes me feel really proud of who I am. Stephen manages to bring that out of me.

It must be demanding having to learn so many other styles and to maintain your traditional technique as well.

It’s full of challenges for me. If I get too comfortable in myself, there’s no oomph to go forward.

Can you tell me anything about Bangarra’s new work?

It’s called Bush and there’s a traditional elder, Kathy Marika, from Yirrkala who’s giving cultural input into the production. And I’ve been lucky enough to learn a lot of the dances from Yirrkala. Kathy was teaching at NAISDA when I was there.

I first noticed you in Rations, the work Frances Rings choreographed for Walkabout last year.

That was my first work with Bangarra. I just loved working with Frances. She’s one of the senior dancers in the company and I look up to her…I didn’t know I was to be given a solo to do. I really loved the movements she used for Ash, the piece that I performed. She seemed to know a lot about my body and she helped me use that to the best of my ability.

It will be interesting to see what she does in the future. Stephen’s always been very open to encouraging other people within the company to experiment choreographically. He doesn’t seem to be intimidated by letting other artists have that space.

That’s true. He allows us to express the way that we feel through movement. Bangarra’s about sharing. He really builds up the rapport between the dancers and himself.

Which presumably gives you the confidence to say, “well maybe I could choreograph something for the company”?

He’s given us those opportunities in the past. I’d so love to choreograph here at this company. But I don’t know how long it’s gonna take for me to get to that level. Bit by bit.

You’ve obviously had a lifetime of experience with traditional dance. A lot of Australians don’t have that experience of dance as something with deep cultural meaning.

Traditional dance will always be…number one priority for me. Stephen’s managed to combine this with contemporary influences in a way that allows me and future generations to get out there and show the rest of this nation and this world what our culture is about. His dance tells stories of old times. He brings it together and carries it forth. And I believe there’s a strong culture here within Bangarra. It’s really a family thing.

You’ve talked about your desire to choreograph. Where do you see your future as a dancer?

I definitely hope to stay with Bangarra for a few more years. Then I’d like to go out and experience other styles of dance. I’m interested in the work that Albert David is doing—contemporary/ Torres Strait Island style of dancing. Maybe a bit further down the line I’d like to start my own company. I’m not so sure whether I want to get into the style that Stephen and Albert are into. I’ve always had a love for the jazz style of dance. But for the time being my heart is set on this.

Bush, Bangarra Dance Theatre, Optus Playhouse, Brisbane, May 21-24; Playhouse, Melbourne, Jun 12-21; Theatre Royal, Sydney, Jul 23-26. The Giz, Albert David and Dancers, Performance Space, Sydney April 9-13

RealTime issue #54 April-May 2003 pg. 35

© Erin Brannigan; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2003
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