It’s rare for any person to confidently claim they’ve made history. During their lifetime, to be able to point and readily identify how their presence caused a shift, perhaps a revolution in the cultural landscape. And though her personal sense of humility means she’d be reluctant to do so, Ella Havelka is widely respected as being able to make that claim.
To the broader Australian dance community, Ella needs little introduction. She has the somewhat thorny distinction of being the first Indigenous dancer offered a contract with The Australian Ballet. “Thorny”, as arguably it should have happened many years previously, yet that’s an examination for a longer, and different article …
Ella further secures her place in the history of Australian dance by being the first artist to work on full-time contracts for both The Australian Ballet and Bangarra Dance Theatre, having started her professional career with the latter where she remained for 4 years before making the leap across the cultural chasm.
Starting her journey in Dubbo, a descendent of the Wiradjuri people, her incredible story has previously been told in print, in TV interviews and in the 2016 documentary, ELLA. Though she’s still a mere 32 years old, if you’re not yet familiar with Ella’s early trajectory, please explore the links added at the bottom of this article.
For as fascinating as Ella’s early years are, it’s her future that drew me to reach out and ask to meet at a local café near her current home on Sydney’s inner North Shore on a humid Summer afternoon. As you’ll read, her future promises to be every bit as interesting and ground breaking as her past.
Having retired from full-time dance in 2019 Ella has been quietly working on a number of vital projects that all centre around advocacy for promoting greater inclusiveness in dance; part of a wholistic understanding of what safe dance practice means. Most recently she’s been assisting Ausdance National on the building of a Diversity and Inclusion taskforce, which would produce a committee to advise Ausdance on all matters to do with diversity and inclusion, while simultaneously bringing to Ausdance matters the committee believe require attention.
Further, quietly and methodically Ella has embarked on building The ELLA Foundation, aiming to provide arts opportunities and inspiration to First Nations youth.
Ella recently completed her Masters in Social Change Leadership via Melbourne University, and has developed her foundation to bring arts workshops to First Nations communities and connect them with mentoring programs. The aim is not merely to inspire and plant the seed of hope and aspiration, yet also to provide the vital bridges and nourishment that are required to forge aspirational hope into a reality that will develop increased community representation of First Nations people. For Ella, “access” and “representation” are the key words she emphasizes again and again to secure her point.
The broad overview of the Ella Foundation is to develop wholehearted access to ensure First Nations people see themselves in every area and level of dance. From the performative, amateur or professional, to grass roots community and every place in between. So they see themselves represented and have access to every area of the dance arts: backstage, choreographers, directors, administrators, designers etc.
I wondered whether Ella feels there’s been any shift in this area during her lifetime.
It does feel like it’s changed a lot in the last 10 years. And yet, we’re at a tipping point that could be dangerous, in terms of it being a kind of surface layer accessibility. Non-Indigenous people in business and organisations are assisting because they know it’s the right thing, and while their hearts may be in the right place, the risk is that they’re making decisions too quickly. The pressures to “do something” means they’re sometimes making rash decisions without proper community consultation.
It’s clear that Ella is highly sensitive that there’s an aspect of “time” that can be a cultural construct and must be accounted for when forming relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures. The time it takes to respond, to get something done, is subjective, and what takes a day in one culture, might require significantly longer in another because of the necessary process of consultation required before decisions are made, and action taken.
Ella is further keen to clarify that, understanding that relationships must be more than about just business and short-term opportunism, even if that opportunism benefits both parties.
So, if I’m waiting on an email, a response to a question I’ve asked, it helps to check in with them personally, just to see how they are, without the expectation of wanting anything. They want a relationship, that is more than just about the work. It’s best to take more time and care and consider the relationship above all else. It’s also important to think about the reciprocal nature of that relationship, asking: if this is what I’m getting, am I giving enough back? Going into any relationship you have to think; this relationship is going to outlive whatever the specific project is that starts it.
Ella’s foundation is built upon four pillars:
ELEVATE | LINK | LEAD | ASPIRE
The Elevate pillar centres around developing the importance of dance for First Nations people.
Dance is a cultural foundation. It’s healing, it’s story-telling, it’s passing on information, it’s bringing people together in a way that is joyous. The whole idea is to come together and experience the joy and love of it, and not because it’s a performance. It’s ceremony.
I asked if she would describe it as people coming together for a sense of “play” or “discovery”, if they’re words that resonate. Yet Ella preferred the word and concept of coming together out of “curiosity”, particularly for those elements where creativity is involved.
What does curiosity look like in response to the place you’re in? So, if you were to bring together a group of people, not only are you responding to each other, but you’re responding to the immediate environment, yet also the environment outside of that: the space itself. Or maybe you’re outdoors; this dance space is located on this country, so what does that mean? How does that affect what we’re doing, how does that affect us internally in that space, and also when we leave? How does it affect how we talk to our families about the experience?
Finally, “Elevate” also includes an aspect of Ella telling her own story, via public speaking and interviews etc, a craft she’s keen to continue honing in order to reach more people.
Part of the process of the Foundation is to create links between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. This will mean bringing dancers, choreographers, Directors etc. from outside of First Nations areas, into those communities to explore dance in each particular context i.e what’s possible with these particular people, at this particular time, on this particular land etc?
Obviously, LINK is about bringing communities together. Bringing the Western world to work with First Nations communities. Does that mean bringing people from Western communities into the First Nations space, or the other way? These are all elements to be considered and I’m still working out a clear process for this, but it will probably be different for each area.
Talking with Ella it’s refreshing to hear that she’s not rushing into anything. While she’s full of ideas, energy and passion, she’s determined to give herself time; time to really visit communities to better understand each one, time to sit in the process and understand how she feels, time to meet and consult. In our fast-paced world where we’re all trying to get “ahead” and do more, ever more efficiently, it’s incredibly disarming to hear someone speak about the need for patience, to want to go deeper and really get the foundation right before starting to build something. It bodes well that the ELLA Foundation will become a powerful entity more likely to endure because of this attitude.
“Link” aims to foster genuine cross creativity. That will mean bringing dancers from within the community to a dance “space”, be it a dance studio, a performance space or simply a space designated as the “dance space” for a particular event.
I’d recently read an article on the passing of the cultural icon, known professionally as David Gulpilil and “posthumously for cultural reasons as David Dalaithngu” by Stan Grant. He discussed David’s struggle with belonging between two worlds and I wondered if Ella was aware of how her advocacy in this space might impact First Nations communities i.e. might those people start to feel similarly torn?
I think that’s what I’m wanting to explore; that no-one is just one world. Everyone has these multiple facets to them. “Link” isn’t just about joining two worlds together, it’s about multiple entities coming together to intersect and find what is common ground and explore that place, perhaps building something there, that doesn’t mean losing any other part of your identity.
“Lead” is opening new pathways and doors. It’s providing opportunities for more formal tuition, or mentorship.
Perhaps someone doesn’t feel comfortable in a traditional dance studio space, well then, I’d try to find an online mentor they could work with. It’s creating opportunities, by identifying the gaps in the process and working to close them.
Ella goes on to tell the story of how when she was growing up her Mum, who was a single Mum, was constantly trying to find funds for tuition to enable Ella the chance to take formal dance classes. There was very little, and it was really difficult as Ella would not seem to fit any of the applications.
Tertiary dance courses provide opportunities for students to access Abstudy which is great. Yet before that, when you’re living at home, there’s very little that funds young kids to give them the opportunity to dance. So how do they do it? They can try and apply to the Australia Council, which my Mum did on numerous occasions; I have a giant folder full of applications, crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s. And you have to prove that the child “can dance” yet the question should simply be, do they want to dance?
Ella already recognises that questions around oversight may become a potential problem once she has DGR (Deductible Gift Recipient) Status. That is, who chooses who gets to dance? Why this child and not this one? This is a tricky issue for Ella who clearly wants to provide the opportunity to attend dance classes to any child that wants it, and not based on some pre-conceived idea of their future potential as a “dancer”.
Yet what’s the measurement, how do you quantify how much someone wants to dance compared to another when allocating finite resources?
Right now, it’s a personal judgement call, based on Ella’s ever deepening understanding of both the communities she works with and the individuals, yet in time she’s keen to develop a process that accounts for the need to sometimes answer to the ACNC (Australian Charities and Not-For-Profits Commission).
Currently, Ella already has a wonderful relationship with The Australian Ballet School Summer School program, whereby any First Nation’s child wanting to develop their practice can apply for a scholarship to attend provided by the Foundation.
In Ella’s ideal overview this would be extended Nationally, and her Foundation would have relationships with every full-time school* in Australia, building pathways and offering opportunities.
*If you’re the owner of a full-time school and would like to offer a place to a child Ella is working with, then please get in touch with Ella HERE.
The next thing I’m worried about is, once they’re in these schools, are they safe; culturally safe? Does the studio, all those that work and learn there, understand the cultural nuances of the child and how their words and actions might impact them?
Those questions and that thought process led to ASIPRE; building culturally safe spaces that are better educated to be more inclusive of diversity.
I was keen to better understand what “safe” means in the context of a First Nations child.
It’s a level of care for language; for the choice of words used and really being aware of the emotional state and noticing when you should basically back off. I feel as though a lot of the time “bad behaviour” is misunderstood and treated like “just” bad behaviour when it needs a different level of care and compassion.
Again, this comes back to being willing to take more time to get a deeper understanding of the nuances of culture, and resist being so quick to make assumptions and judgements.
It helps to be less focused on outcomes, and more focused on the present moment.
Ella goes on to tell a story about how everyone responds to stress differently. The day before we met, Ella was working with a community dance group, helping rehearse and prepare some of their dancers ahead of a performance in Redfern.
Ella recounts that she’d only recently been brought in and didn’t know the dancers very well. Before the performance the young dancers, teenagers, were “unsettled” and Ella struggled to get them calm and focused, at least in the way or by the standards she expected based on her years as a professional dance artist.
Part of the teacher in her wanted to yell; that they were going to embarrass themselves and their regular dance teacher. And yet another part of her realised she needed to take a step back, try and have confidence that their process might be different and that she shouldn’t necessarily impose her process on them.
While the perfectionist in Ella struggled, she let go and went with it and the girls then went and got painted up ready to perform. Very soon afterwards Ella was surprised to see the massive shift that took place in them as they now dropped deeply into their characters and the mood, becoming focused and performing beautifully.
Ella had that moment of thinking;
Maybe my way isn’t always the right way. They got there in their own way.
Such experiences continue to solidify in Ella that there are many ways to approach dance, to approach training, rehearsals and performance and that perhaps we all need to reflect on that more, particularly institutions.
In conclusion, Ella relates some advice she was given by a mentor who told her:
The values, or the scaffold of any work you want to do can be like furniture in a room. You’ve got your lounge, your TV, your coffee table and whatever … and you can keep moving them around so you’re comfortable in that space, so that’s it’s serving you. They’re all still in the same space, but it’s how you relate to them that changes.
Each of the Foundation pillars can stand on their own, and yet they’re all linked and can be moved around as required for specific contexts. At the end of the day, for Ella;
It’s simply an inclusive space, where we can create our own world of dance. No one is being defined by the external; we’re defining our own.
It’s clear all this thinking, planning and consultation has made Ella acutely aware of the particular cultural nuances required working in this space. It’s not a space one can walk into, deliver a workshop and then walk away from. It requires a commitment and focus that appreciates that the relationships she builds are long term, that demand that she deeply considers the implications and repercussions of the choices she makes on the community.
It’s going to be really different in each space. And I’m curious to see how the communities respond and whether they’re going to say, “we want to keep it very traditional; to look such and such a way”? Or are they going to be really receptive to other ideas? I don’t know. And I’m not going to know until I try. I just need to let it be really self-determining. If I set a creative task and the dancers start doing really contemporary stuff, then I’ll go with it. If they start mimicking traditional movements they’ve seen, then I’ll go with that.
Ultimately, this is what Ella’s learnt and tells anyone wanting to work in this space:
You will make mistakes. You will say the wrong thing and annoy people and you just have to take ownership of that and apologise. And if you apologise genuinely and want to learn, then you find a way to make amends and move forward.
The ELLA Foundation is proudly supported by ECO Dancers, a new Australian dancewear brand. ECO Dancers has been founded by First Nations family, Koby, Samantha and Jacob who are bringing environmentally friendly dancewear to the dancers of Australia.
If you’d like to donate to the ELLA Foundation and help inspire the next generation of First Nations youth, then you can do so clicking here.
ELLA documentary, on demand
Main Banner: Greg Barrett for Bangarra Dance Theatre
Portrait: for Dermalogica
A the barre: with Mum and first dance teacher, Suzanne Duffy
Ella with kids : Darkinjung Primary School
Red dress: Still from ELLA documentary
Ella rehearsing dancers from the Australian Ballet
Article by Josef brown.