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Indigenous dancer Tammi Gissell talks about dance's influence in her culture

Who can forget the magnificent presence of dancer Tammi Gissell​ in Canberra during the city's centennial year, 2013? She performed at the launch of the Centenary Indigenous Cultural Program, and appeared in Magnificus, magnificus,​ a work by Liz Lea focusing on the habits of the red-tailed black cockatoo. She also discussed on several occasions her collaboration with Lea at the CSIRO Discovery Centre as they worked on a program called Seeking Biloela, which led to the creation of Magnificus, magnificus. Gissell, a descendant of the Muruwari nation of north-western New South Wales, is an exceptional dancer – every part of her beautifully honed body is expressive. But during 2013 she was equally at home demonstrating and discussing Indigenous movement language, and she provided frequent insights into the transmission of Indigenous knowledge. 

Now Gissell is returning to Canberra for a special program in the Black Chat series presented by the National Film and Sound Archive. On February 12, in the first Black Chat for 2016, Gissell will talk with curator Brenda Gifford about the pivotal role dance plays in Indigenous culture in a program entitled "Indigenous identity through dance".

"Aboriginal people don't have a monopoly on dance," Gissell says. "Everyone dances. But for us it's not how we dance, or what we dance, but why we dance. In Aboriginal society, knowledge has always been passed from body to body. Dance is a way of making sense of the world. It is the storehouse of our knowledge, and the way we pay respect to our heritage. If knowledge is not passed on, the balance of our world becomes unhinged. Dancing is a matter of survival for Aboriginal culture."

The Black Chat program will also feature three films from the Film Australia Collection, all focusing on Indigenous dance. Aeroplane Dance documents reactions to the crash of Little Eva, an American bomber which, while returning from a mission in New Guinea, was blown off course by a tropical storm. It came down in bush in a remote area close to the Gulf of Carpentaria in December 1942 and the local Yanyuwa people participated in the extensive search for survivors. Aeroplane Dance, created shortly after the crash by a Yanyuwa man, Frank Karrijiji, is a collection of songs, dances and mime in which the search is re-enacted. The documentary also records the recollections of the American crew who survived the crash.

Two quite different short films are also on the program. One, 7 Colours made in 1990, features the current artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre, Stephen Page (then working with the Aboriginal and Islander Dance Theatre), and former Sydney Dance Company artist Victoria Taylor, in a series of experimental dance sequences featuring special colour and lighting effects. The other, Aboriginal Dance, records five dances from the Aurukun Mission in Far North Queensland, as well as three more traditional dances, filmed in 1978 and performed by David Gulpilil. Gulpilil became a celebrity as a young dancer in the 1971 film Walkabout, and he also famously danced for Queen Elizabeth II at the opening of the Sydney Opera House in 1973. He has continued to make a mark as a dancer and actor in films such as Crocodile Dundee, Rabbit-Proof Fence, Three Canoes and Charlie's Country

Indigenous dance on film is also set to have a presence in Canberra over several weeks in March when the National Film and Sound Archive will screen Spear, a work in which Stephen Page makes his debut as a feature film director. The film is an expanded version of a work for stage, also called Spear, which Page made for Bangarra Dance Theatre in 2000. As with the original stage production, the new film, which had its Australian premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival in 2015, focuses on the issue of how to reconcile ancient traditions with life in contemporary society. It charts the efforts of a young man, Djali, played by Hunter Page-Lochard, son of Stephen Page and former New York City Ballet and Sydney Dance Company artist Cynthia Lochard, to understand what it is to be a young Indigenous man suspended between two, often conflicting, worlds. 

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Production design for Spear is by Bangarra Dance Theatre's talented resident designer, Jacob Nash, and the film is set in a range of locations, including the outback, a rugged Australian coastline, and inner city areas of Sydney. Using dance and movement with minimal text, some confronting issues are examined, including substance abuse, racism, suicide, and deaths in custody. Other long-standing members of the Bangarra family play major roles. Costumes are by Jennifer Irwin, the soundscape is by David Page, and cultural consultant Djakapurra Munyarryun​ has a featured role. 

Page has always been positive about the strength of Indigenous culture to survive in a contemporary world and this has been an ongoing theme in his work over the 25 years he has directed Bangarra Dance Theatre. Speaking of the role of Old Man in Spear, which is played by Demela Wunungmurra, Page says: "The Old Man character is there to remind Djali that there's always a great sense of hope, and that our resilience is tied to our sense of humour." And Page's positive outlook has not gone unnoticed in other parts of the world. When Spear had its world premiere in Canada at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2015, a local critic wrote: 

"Sure, life's been tough, Spear says. But we've got the fortitude and the cultural heritage to survive and grow. That's a powerfully positive message in contemporary Australia and one that translates easily into any language."

With Black Chat and the screening of Spear, audiences in Canberra can expect a fascinating look at Indigenous society and culture, in both traditional and contemporary urban situations. With Gissell and Page we have the privilege of hearing two of the strongest Indigenous voices working in the arts today. 

Black Chat: Indigenous Identity through Dance, National Film and Sound Archive Arc Cinema, February 12, 6pm. Free. Bookings essential at trybooking.com.

Spear, National Film and Sound Archive Arc Cinema, from March 10, various times. $14/$12, bookings at trybooking.com/jzpz. Q&A session with Stephen Page and other cast and crew on March 12 at 8pm.