When he arrived in Canberra in 2000 in his last year of primary school, Bangarra dancer Luke Currie-Richardson was surrounded by a close extended family with strong ties to their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage. Those ties included activities with the Gerib Sik Torres Strait Islander Dance Group, led by Uncle Noel and Aunty Kaye Zaro and, while at Melrose High School and then Erindale College, Currie-Richardson performed traditional songs and dances with the group. Dance, he says, was a way of learning about his stories and culture.
But there was also a strong sporting tradition in his extended family. He grew up spending a lot of time with his cousin Patty Mills, now a star basketball player with the NBA in the United States, and recently part of the Australian men's basketball team, the Boomers, at the Rio Olympics. Another cousin, Tim Cornforth, played rugby union at an elite level, including with the junior Brumbies and later the Australian Sevens, and Currie-Richardson himself played basketball at a national level while at school. He says that for a long time he hoped to become a professional basketball player, although now he admits that he probably didn't have the right focus and drive to make it as a basketballer.
His career pathway changed when another cousin, Jacqueline Cornforth, sister of Tim, convinced him to audition for Ruth Osborne's QL2 for a 2007 performance season called Unspeakable. Currie-Richardson laughs as he recalls the audition experience.
"Jacqui wouldn't take no for an answer, so I went along. But when I got there everyone was doing pirouettes or backflips. I was like a duck out of water: I looked like a basketballer. But then a lady walked in. She was Vicki van Hout from the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association. She was carrying a bag with the NAISDA College logo on it, which I recognised. She told me just to do some traditional steps across the room. She screamed out some encouragement as I began and she gave me confidence. I started to think that I really could be a dancer. It was in my bloodline."
He passed the audition and thoroughly enjoyed performances at the Playhouse, and also made friends with the other dancers in the show. When he got some positive feedback from Ruth Osborne after the season, his mind was made up. He wanted to dance, and wanted to use the art form to explore and understand more about his Torres Strait culture. So he set his heart on joining Bangarra Dance Theatre and spent two years at NAISDA before going on to Queensland University of Technology for another two years. The QUT experience was not an easy one for him, even though his cousin Jacqui was also there.
"I was in the lowest classes," he recalls. "My body was not the ideal one for course expectations, and my ballet technique was certainly not up to scratch. It was hard work. But I tried always to have the bigger picture in mind. My ultimate aspiration was to represent my family and my culture."
Then one day in 2012 he had a call from Stephen Page, artistic director of Bangarra, who asked him I he would like to become a trainee with the company. He could scarcely believe what was happening but said yes. By 2013 he was a full-time Bangarra dancer and recently came home to Canberra, performing in OUR land people stories.
Now Currie-Richardson is about to head off on a Bangarra tour to New York and Paris. In New York, Bangarra will perform at the Fall for Dance festival where they will dance selections from their repertoire in a program called Spirit. Fall for Dance takes place in the beautifully restored Moorish Revival-style theatre, City Center, at 55th Street in Manhattan. The festival, how in its 13th year, begins as the leaves of the northern hemisphere's deciduous tree are falling to the ground and, by putting every ticket on sale for just $15, the season is designed to encourage new audiences to sample, and hopefully fall for, dance from across America and around the world. Bangarra is the only Australian company performing in 2016.
In Paris Bangarra has a week-long residency at the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, an ethnographic museum with a strong interest in Australian indigenous culture. Its rooftop installation, which can only be seen from the air, or from the top of the Eiffel Tower, is by Kimberley-based indigenous artist Lena Nyadbi. It made headlines when it was put in place in 2013. The Bangarra residency will include performances of Ochres, a work made originally in 1995 and reworked for new audiences in 2015; screenings of Stephen Page's 2015 film Spear, his debut work as a film director; and a series of workshops.
Does Currie-Richardson look back with regret on haven given up his dreams of playing professional basketball? Not at all.
"Patty and I stay in touch and we are supportive of each other's careers," he says. "But the basketball hopeful is now a world tour dancer. I am just grateful and blessed to be able to help put our culture on the world stage."
Bangarra in New York: Fall for Dance, September 30-October 1. Bangarra in Paris: Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, October 5-8.