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Animated Edition - Autumn 2002
Links with the land
The land and landscapes - real, virtual, imagined, cultural, metaphoric - were at the heart of Dance in the Landscape, the second Australian national forum for community dance. The land of the Turrbal people, the original owners of the land on which Brisbane was and continues to be built, and the relationship of those people and all Indigenous people across Australia to their land and landscape was a thread celebrated and acknowledged throughout the Forum. Jeanette Fabila, indigenous dancer and teacher, and a speaker at Dance in the Landscape writes about her work and gives an insight into the Indigenous protocols, which inform her work
'I acknowledge the traditional people of this land and their ancestors, for permission to represent and speak on behalf of my Aboriginal/ Islander/Papua New Guinea ancestors to share my knowledge of Indigenous culture and how, community dance, utilising our traditional and contemporary dance, song, music and storytelling encourages our communities to reclaim and strengthen an education system that is centuries old.'

This statement gives you, the reader, an immediate insight into the journey aboriginal people in Australia are making in relation to our land, our traditions, our histories, our cultures.

Land and ownership, place and our cultures are deeply intertwined, and the term 'aboriginal', which to the outside has been looked on as one race and one people, is in fact a complex set of nations and peoples with different traditions, stories and focus dependent on place.

Our people have had many things taken away from them and we have developed a number of protocols that are inherent in our culture about respect. In working with Indigenous people time has to be taken to develop trust, permission from the people who are the traditional owners of the land to use their land and their stories or their art has to be sought.

We have a complex range of sacred things and these have to be respected.

As human beings we all like to be asked if others can use things we think are ours. In my work for example, I am very protective of looking after the sacredness of our dances, songs, paintings and stories from whatever nation of Indigenous people that I have the honour of working with. Only with their full support and faith that we are utilising the culture in a positive educational way, do I go about including a sacred piece if it is represented with the utmost respect in a contemporary performance.

My relationship to my people and their country
It would be disrespectful of me to use our traditional songs from Papua New Guinea as they are only used in a spiritual way for rituals such as funerals. These dances and songs are sacred and should be respected and acknowledged as such.

In the same context, with my strong catholic upbringing, it would be disrespectful of me to utilise holy water in a performance or sing the Lord's Prayer if it was conveyed in an everyday context. Finding the balance between sacred dances and the dances that involve the fun and enthusiasm of the community is an ongoing education in itself for myself and other Indigenous brothers and sisters.

Every place has it's own journey to tell, through cultural beliefs, dances, songs, music and stories, every land has it's own sacred rituals that respect the land it relates to.

The place of song dance storytelling in Aboriginal cultures
My background in performance has been an odyssey in itself, learning about different cultures through the eyes of a dancer. Guided by the spirits, I was blessed to be inspired by traditional tutors from Papua New Guinea, Tahiti and Japan, then later through National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association (NAISDA), the search for my great grandmother's ancestry.

Born in Papua New Guinea, and experiencing Catholic boarding school as an introduction to Australia, I became one of the lost Indigenous youth in the big city. It was through NAISDA that I learnt about my Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage and the common links of certain habits and ways which my family were raised in Papua New Guinea that led me to question the historical changes that affected Indigenous communities in a huge way. It was through NAISDA that I learnt that many of us were affected through the influence of the 'missions' in this country, disconnecting children with their families and homes ensuring continuance of the next generation to carry the burdens of their ancestors today but in a contemporary context. It is only quite recently that we have come close to finding our Aboriginal and Islander bloodline, which I continue to search through the dances, songs, and stories of our people in the hope of finding my true homeland. Many of us continue to search.

I gained further inspiration from many directors, fellow artists, and role models from both indigenous and non-indigenous cultures. Blessed by the guidance of my great grandmother who I believe was a teacher of catechism, Irish dance and song (1890's-early 1900's) in Papua New Guinea, (who has been seen as a figure in a long white mission dress floating next to me as I teach Indigenous/contemporary dance classes, by participants who have never seen visions before). It is with this thought that I feel she has paved the way for me in meeting wonderful spirits to mentor me - both traditional Indigenous mentors, as well as western tutors including people like Jim Sharman (National Institute of Dramatic Art, NSW), Kai Tai Chan, Graeme Watson (One Extra Co.NSW), Paul Saliba (Principal Dance Teacher NAISDA) Eugene Casey (music teacher NAISDA), Toby Gough (Theatre of the Plants, Scotland), Bill Pengilly (Centenary Federation).

These wonderful people were able to give me the foundation and understanding of western concepts in an artistic way in order to develop and grow as an Indigenous artist to then accommodate for my own community within the theatre structure. Their support was inevitable as Indigenous culture was slowly being acknowledged and in the early 1990's had a long way to go. This has given me a strong basis with which to keep the balance between the traditional and the contemporary in dance, music, song and storytelling and allowed me to develop a way of working in order to pass on information, relevant to the Indigenous and non-indigenous communities of today.

The way in which I work, I believe allows me to dissolve ignorance and racism, and develop true respect for and between Indigenous and non-indigenous people. Indigenous/contemporary dance within the community can be a powerful tool for reconciliation and healing between Indigenous and non-indigenous people if used properly. Our ancestors were given responsibility of being caretakers of the land, passing on the knowledge and secrets of Mother Earth through every generation, adapting into contemporary form using the body language of an ancient civilisation to teach our people about the influences of alcohol, missions and wars.

My experiences through NAISDA, having the opportunity to live and learn dances from a different nation each year, representing both the mainland Aboriginal and the people of the sea, (the Torres Strait Islanders), allowed me to see and have the opportunity to learn traditional dances depicting a time or era when something was introduced into the community. The 'card' and 'grog' dances taught to me by the Munyarryun family, depicts the introduction of gambling and alcohol within the Yirrkala community. The grog dance, in particular reflects the way in which the body reacts to alcohol in a traditional style of dance accompanied with the traditional song and sound of the clapstick and didgeridoo. These lessons have enabled me to re-teach the next generation through the body language of today's society.

I have also learnt through my journey that it is important for us to reflect the issues of the community in performance, so that we can all learn from each other to share and grow into a more peaceful multi-cultural nation. One of the main lessons that I have learned from all my traditional Tutors from the Papua New Guinean, Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, Polynesian and Asian nations is the ability to 'LOOK!!!' 'LISTEN!!!' AND 'RESPECT!!!'

This is central to what I teach as part of my performances for children and adults to be able to come together in a simple chant and rhythm in order that we are all able to rebuild community spirit through simple dance, music and song, with Indigenous warmth spreading through the audience through the earthy beat of a Kundu drum, the echo of time with clapstick, or the spiritual rattle of the Kulap. It is also a reminder to the audience that they are one community. This chant and dance is structured to invite people to share their cultures and is adaptable to whichever environment I am faced with: childcare centres, schools, respite and centres for disabled, people, youth clubs, and detention centres.

Gaining true respect for one another through a learning process utilising dance, music, song and storytelling, creates not only understanding, it uplifts the spirit of a multi-cultural society.

Jeanette Fabila. Email

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Animated: Autumn 2002