Koomurri, a group that has been going strong for 25 years, won Dance Rites in 2016. (Supplied: Joseph Mayers)
When we talk about “classics” most people think of opera or ballet, or even vintage rock.
But for Rhoda Roberts, the driving force behind the Dance Rites contest at the Sydney Opera House, it’s time to celebrate Australia’s Indigenous classics.
“Every civil society has its classics, and I think ours are steeped in that cultural celebration, but also the ritual and ceremony of dance and corroboree,” Ms Roberts, the Opera House’s head of Indigenous programming, says.
“We have amazing dance companies, particularly with Bangarra, and they’re doing incredible things that are really relevant to the stories we tell now.
“But then I started to look at stories of elders passing, and the songlines going with them, and I asked myself: ‘How do we maintain our classics?'”
Rhoda Roberts, head of Indigenous programming at the Sydney Opera House. (ABC News: Philippa McDonald)
Classics is an apt description. While Indigenous societies are often referred to having an oral history, many stories and the knowledge within them, are told and maintained through dance and song.
Most societies encode knowledge in songs — many English speakers would struggle to say the alphabet in order, without putting it to the tune of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.
But for Indigenous societies, encoding information in this way has allowed for the faithful recreation of knowledge relating to the physical and spiritual world, allowing it to be maintained and enhanced across millennia.
Koomurri, a 25-year-old dance group that gets its name from a portmanteau of Koori and Murri, today boasts more than 60 members around the country and won last year’s Dance Rites.
According to Cecil McLeod, who has been performing with Koomurri for half a decade, in the first year of the contest, the group went in with the wrong mindset.
“In the first year, the young lads went in with a big head thinking it’s a big competition — but it’s not about the competition,” he says.
“It’s about getting in and doing the ceremonies right, and letting people feel the power of the ceremonies. The year we won … we didn’t worry about any competition and we focused on coming together as families and communities and making sure this thing continues on — that’s the most important thing we think we can do.”
Looking beyond performance and competition and focusing on knowledge, tradition and respect is an integral part of Koomurri’s success.
“Everyone who is the dance troupe, they get that explained to them,” he says.
“Once they’re in there we go through a stage where we’ve got to learn stuff from the elders, and also pay our respects to the people of the land where they live and where we do a lot of our work — that’s the Gadigal people.
‘Not lost, just misplaced’
For much of the 20th century, Aboriginal people were forced onto reserves and missions and prohibited from practicing traditional culture, speaking in language or performing ceremonies or corroborees.
This has led to a common belief that much of that cultural knowledge has been lost or destroyed, particularly on the East Coast.
But Roberts rejects that notion.
“There’s nothing lost, it’s just been misplaced, and maybe saved for a time when it was appropriate for it to come back out,” she says.
“It’s wonderful to find the old uncle or auntie who actually speaks language, but hasn’t done it as regularly because much of their generation has passed on — and to see that rekindling is really important.
“I’m always humbled and amazed at their generosity, but also their knowledge. It’s been there, they’ve never forgotten, they’ve just had to hide it away for safety and survival and now’s the time that we can take our true and rightful place back on the foreshores of Sydney Harbour.”
Mr McLeod agrees that Dance Rites sends a powerful message about the importance of language and culture.
“It is a big point to make, that culture is still strong. We’ve got it at schools now, a lot of our uncles and aunties are going in there and teaching a lot of artwork and crafts and, most importantly, teaching languages,” he says.
“Having Dance Rites, it brings all of us into one area and it shows us that we’re all equal. No one’s better. We can all compete in this world we live in now and we can all succeed in this world.”
Dance Rites competition is a part of the Homeground Festival, which aspires to celebrate, safeguard and revitalise traditional cultural practices. This year’s competition is expected to attract some 240 dancers from across the country.