In Dark Emu, Bangarra’s Jasmin Sheppard wants to uncover a very old story through the power of dance.
What Jasmin Sheppard wants most is to tell the stories that remain untold. Celebrating her 12th year at Bangarra, the dancer is committed to helping audiences move from ignorance to enlightenment. For instance, in her first major piece of choreography, Macq, Sheppard unveiled the hidden history of Governor Lachlan Macquarie, and his part in the 1816 massacre at Appin, where at least 14 Dharawal men, women and children were brutally killed. “I’m passionate about all sides of history. It’s everybody’s right to know what’s happened in our history - blackfellas, whitefellas, immigrants - there’s no way to move forward and create unity or a proper community from all of us unless we know what’s happened,” Sheppard explains. “That’s half of the reason that we have racism today - because most Australians have been fed these lies about history, about what really happened, about who Aboriginal people were, and how our communities were. Racism is really based on ignorance, so I’m really passionate about getting rid of that ignorance.”
Her latest part in uncovering lost histories is Dark Emu. Touring nationwide this June, Bangarra’s latest production attempts the arduous task of adapting Bruce Pascoe’s book of the same name. It’s not a piece of fiction - in fact, it reveals a startling truth - that, despite the persistent myth of being nomadic hunter-gatherers, First Nations people were skilled and deliberate farmers who cultivated crops, built infrastructure and lived in (permanent) stone houses.
For Sheppard, reading the book was a revelation - even for someone with strong roots in the Tagalaka and Kurtijar Peoples from Normanton and Croydon in the Gulf of Carpentaria. “Reading the book really made me feel that there has been so much that’s been taken away from us - even to the point that I was learning things, and I was surprised. It’s so beautifully inspired about how rich and complicated and structured our farming techniques were, and our ways of making sure that food sources remain constant. How we toiled the land, and seed production all across the land,” Sheppard says. “It just goes to show how whitewashed our history has been, even to the point of our food-sources and how we manage the land. It’s all tied to trying to stamp out indigenous people’s presence here in Australia, and how civilised our communities were.”
Working in tandem with choreographer and Bangarra founder, Stephen Page, Sheppard has been unravelling the problem of how to tell a story about history and science through the medium of dance. “It’s proven really challenging for the choreographers, but it’s really interesting to take something that’s written mostly about botany and the land and then think about how a human responds to that. How do you physically embody something like burnoff or something like seed-spreading? How do we put the human spirit back into the science?” she asks. “Really, it’s about using your imagination. As a dancer, I like to take a lot of information and lead from the choreographer. But also, personally, the way I like to work is to delve right into a story for myself.”
One route that Sheppard takes is by connecting with the people who still practice these ancient cultural traditions. “We’re working on a piece now about controlled burnings, and the way ash was used after burnings; the difference between hot burns and cool burns; the oils in the plants; working with the wind preparing the land,” she explains. “I’ve been able to draw really closely from stories. My countryman from up in the gulf, Victor Stephenson is reawakening traditional burning to revive land and revive culture, to connect people back to their roots. That’s how I personalise it and put my own self into the work. That’s how I’m also able to support the choreographers in their journey.”
When Dark Emu begins its nationwide tour this June, Sheppard hopes that audiences will find an entry-point into the very long and very rich history of Australian civilisation. “I hope that the same thing happens when you read the book. There’s a sense of awe and wonderment at the richness of our history. I think this is going to be a really beautiful to take the eyes on a visual feast in relation to the words that have laid down,” she says. “It’d be perfect if people could do both - see the show and read the book. I do really hope it’s a way to educate people, and they’ll go and do their own research and read the book, and find out more about what’s happened here.”
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Sydney Opera House 14 June - 14 July
Canberra Theatre Centre 26 - 28 July
State Theatre Centre of WA 2 - 5 August
QPAC 24 August - 1 September
Arts Centre Melbourne 6 - 15 September