In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement sweeping the world, MDM appreciate there’s a role for us to play and changes we need to make. The first of these was examining the language we use and correcting it to be less narrow in its focus. MDM CEO, Timothy Heathcote since wrote an article to raise the conversation with our audience, and to clearly state our commitment to being better and doing better.
We also appreciate the need to hear specifically from dancers who may be directly affected by race, in order that we might all better understand their experience.
Today we’re hearing from the incredible Frances Rings. Frances is a Kokatha woman from the West Coast of South Australia and is the Artistic Director at Bangarra Dance Theatre.
This interview was conducted as a phone interview June, 2020 and transcribed to print.
MDM: It feels like the Black Lives Matter movement may be at a critical turning point. I know that’s easy to say, as these things can come and go in the mainstream media, but it does feel like there’s an energy that is more sustained; a momentum. Do you have some thoughts on why this particular moment is so powerful and why now, when we know that black deaths have been happening, filmed and shared for a very long time, that this moment may be different?
Frances : Look, you know, I think that it’s a global movement for a start. I think it has to do with the way we’re receiving information. The immediacy. It really requires action. I think there are a lot of factors. There are so many different degrees of things that are happening globally, and I think the pandemic has made us quite vulnerable as humans. And you know, we’ve been forced to stop, reset and consider every aspect of our lives.
MDM: That’s interesting. So perhaps that we’ve had to pause, that we’ve had time to get out of our own little bubbles has helped.
Frances: Yeah, those bubbles that, you know, can be pretty watertight. Normally you can go and do what you want to, and live in your white privileged bubble, and not have to interact and not have to kind of see the truth that’s happening. And now, the truth telling is really resonating through every aspect of our society via our media, on social media, all of the mediums we get our information from. Before you used to have to really work to search it out on NITV, ABC, or SBS. But now, the information is mainstream and the sounds of the voices are resonating loud.
I went to the Black Lives Matter march in Sydney. I thought long and hard about it, about taking my children because of the pandemic. We’ve been called selfish, and all of that kind of stuff for going.
I walked from China Town to Central and I looked at the other people who were there; I started seeing families, Indian families, Asian people and white Australians and everyone were holding signs. I got really overwhelmed emotionally because, you know, it’d been a long time since I’d seen anything like that. That solidarity.
I was very fortunate to be working at SBS earlier in my career, and I was on the ground with the reporters for SBS for the huge Reconciliation Walk across the Harbour Bridge. To see that wave of people, you know, thousands of people walking for reconciliation. It was that same sense of pride that I felt back then. You know, this emotional moment where you started to believe that people are finally hearing Indigenous voices and concerns.
It felt like a moment of hope. It’s been a long time since we felt that as Indigenous Australians.
MDM: Do you think the pandemic, and the fact that its connected us in a different way, where many more have realised how interconnected we actually are, that not only did it break those bubbles, but it really broke that idea that if something happens in another part of the world it can directly affect us.
Frances: I actually think it’s given us a different perspective. I think we’ve had to really look at our identity as Australians and think about Globalisation, you know, all of those Australian made products and factories that have been closed. Now we outsource everything. Everything’s made overseas. That reliance, it’s really put a big mirror up in front of our faces and we sort of have to ask ourselves, what kind of country do we want to be.
PROMOTIONAL IMAGE: FISH, 1997
And it was incredible being part of the Black Lives Matter march in Sydney, being part of 20,000 people that were peaceful, considerate and sensitive to the pandemic. Everyone was responsible and being aware of socially distancing. And there were free masks and water and hand sanitiser. People were being cautious, and there was this solidarity of Australians coming together to show not only their support for the Black Lives Matter movement in America, and for George Floyd, but for Indigenous Australia and the injustices that we’ve faced and continue to face. Understanding we’ve had our own George Floyd tragedy’s here in Australia. One happened only a few years ago. His name is David Dungay Jr and he died in 2015 the same way that George Floyd did. Yet his name wasn’t mentioned on the mainstream media and, you know, his family were there for the march and his mother, she’s still fighting for justice for her son.
MDM: – I’d like to get a little more dance specific now and ask; what role, if any, did race play in your early experience in becoming a dancer.
Frances: Well … dance has always been a part of my identity, part of my who I am. It was the way in which I explored the world, the way in which I explored my identity. It’s always been there from as long as I can remember. And you know, I didn’t get the opportunity to train formally, or even realise that dance could be a career, something you could do; that you could dedicate your life to it.
MDM: When did that change for you?
Frances: It changed when I was at Bundamba High School in Ipswich, Queensland and dance become possible as a HSC subject. I finally had the opportunity to train. I was 16 years old and our class went able to Sydney to see the musical, CATS at the Theatre Royal. That was the moment, I think from then it just changed my whole life. I remember seeing that show and going, well these guys are doing this for their life, this is their career. It was magical.
But even more than having a “career” or making money, it was that understanding that you can tell stories with your body and can transform into animals, that these animals have stories and that they’re captivating and they tell us about life and they tell us about experiences. I thought “wow” how interesting and how incredible the power of theatre is. So yeah, before that I’d just seen the dance in movies, but that was my first theatrical experience.
MDM: You said that dance had always been part of your life, always part of your family; what were you doing before you started formally training in dance?
Frances: My Dad tells me that I would dance in our backyard. We lived in Port Augusta in South Australia, a little country town, and he told me I would make theatre out of the cubby house and I’d dress my siblings up in costumes, and then put on these shows. And you know, I just had this wild imagination for creating these little theatrical pieces. That just felt normal. It didn’t feel like I was doing anything unusual and I think they were just, Oh well, that’s her way. Other kids were playing with toys and dolls and things, and I was creating theatre in the backyard.
I guess I found that creating theatre and art that it was a tool for exploring and problem solving and being able to understand what’s happening in your world. I think that’s how children problem solve, through creating and using their imagination. We were relatively poor, so I guess I just used what I had around me, which was an incredible backyard and lots of bush. It becomes its own kind of meditation I suppose and, you know, became a way to sort of allow the time and space to process and work things out.
My father is German, and I think I always noticed people looking at us like we were different. That was something that I remember from an early age, going: Why? Why are they looking at us? Why are we different to other people? Not knowing that I had black skin; not seeing the difference at a young age. And then suddenly finally realising, Oh that’s why!
MDM: What age did you have that realisation?
Frances: I think I was about eight when I realised that. Because you don’t see colour as a child. You don’t. Children, you know, they just play, they just accept. And they just do what they’re doing, and I guess those walls haven’t been put up yet. There’s a beautiful innocence.
MDM: How do you think race has shaped the choices you’ve made or the path that was open to you as a dancer?
Frances: I’m 50 this year, and to tell you the truth I don’t think that the reasons I wanted to be a dancer have changed very much. I always wanted, since I can remember, to have that space to tell our stories, be able to do it in my own language and be able to share that.
MDM: You gravitated to Bangarra Dance Theatre. Did you consider other contemporary companies, or your own contemporary company? I guess I’m wondering, in the current context, if there was a specific reason and whether you felt that race had anything to do with that decision?
Frances: When graduating from NAISDA I was consciously aware that we didn’t move the same as mainstream contemporary dancers. We had different ways of physicalising our stories. I guess that difference, I found it really hard. I did audition for different companies but the way I moved wasn’t something that people knew what to do with.
And so Bangarra, for a lot of us, was the place that became a kind of home for our Indigenous contemporary dance form. Where we were understood for why we looked the way we did and danced the way we did and could explore our stories.
I found that earlier in my career I still didn’t feel that I knew enough about dance as a technique. I went to New York and spent time there because I wanted to see what it was like overseas, how they explored dance, what black Americans and people of other identities were doing with dance. So I went over and I loved my time in New York because it really taught me about passion, and it taught me about the tools of training your body, and how to find your own way of expressing your art.
MDM: Where in New York did you learn this?
Frances: I went to Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre for three months doing an independent study course there and then hung out for a bit, before traveling to France to experience some European culture, visit galleries and explore dance. For me to give myself to Bangarra I felt like I really needed to fully explore what an artist is; what those edges were. And I found that really kind of gave me a fuller picture of what dance represents globally so I could come back and go, now I know where our stories fit into this and why they’re relevant to the rest of the world. Getting that bigger picture perspective to then come back and understand; OK, now I know what I need to do to honour and tell those stories as an artist from an Indigenous perspective.
MDM: How does the dance industry differ, if at all, regards its relationship with race versus your wider experience of the macro-culture?
Frances: I think that question is really interesting. Because in a lot of ways I think the dance industry is being forced to look at itself as well; to look at the many Western constructs, the way they work, and how a company like Bangarra is forced to fit into them.
MDM: Could you unpack that a little more please?
Frances: – We have institutions that are informed by a classical history, and that honour that history, and have long been able to just exist that way within that bubble.
I remember when I was younger and saw a ballerina and thought, OH my God I would love to be a ballerina. And I remember saying that to somebody and they just laughed at me and said; you know, there are no black ballerinas. And there was that moment of being crushed, that realisation that, OK, so this is something where I’m not allowed, where I’m not welcomed, and that reality doesn’t exist for someone like me.
MDM: Was there any part of you at that point that wanted to go, I’m going to be the 1st one or anything like that?
Frances: – At the time I think I went, well, if I can’t do that then I’ll do the next best thing which was moving into the contemporary space. I thought, OK it’ not too late for me I can start my training at 16. And I remember I finished my HSC at 17 and the day after I got on the bus and went to Sydney and auditioned for NAISDA and that was it; I haven’t stopped since!
I think we’ve been able to loosen the barricades of those institutions to allow empathy, and to consider allowing a new vision. It’s not asking them to desecrate their traditions, but it’s saying there are other identities, other ways of evolving and growing that’s inclusive of everybody in our dance community.
MDM: Do you think a young 15-year-old Frances Rings in 2020 might see that ballerina and it would be different? Might you now think; I could do that.
Frances: Yeah. Definitely. Because it’s present now, you can see dancers. There’s Ella (Ella Havelka at The Australian Ballet) and there are black ballerinas in companies all around the world. That alone gives young dancers hope, that visibility gives them aspiration.
MDM: It’s easy, particularly when we’re young to make an unspoken assumption that, if there’s nobody that looks or acts like we do to think, that’s not something for me. It’s a little like the experience of seeing a male classical dance teacher in the classroom; it instantly has the unspoken effect of normalising classical dance for boys’ who might want to dance; it makes them feel that they’re allowed.
Frances: That’s why having our Indigenous people being in Parliament, being leaders that are visible within the mainstream community is really important. Our young people need to have those aspirations, they need to be inspired, they need to know that they’re capable of anything and everything and that the only thing that’s holding them back is when they doubt themselves. But if they believe, they work hard, they put in effort that is consistent and committed then anything is possible.
But that first seed is important, that seed of seeing those role models out there, that they’re a normal presence in our society, not an anomaly. You know, there shouldn’t be only one Indigenous dancer in The Australian Ballet, we really need to lift our game.
PROMOTIONAL IMAGE: THE DREAMING
MDM: Could you talk a little about the work Bangarra are doing in reaching out to more regional and rural areas?
Frances: Yeah, we get out and do a lot of work, a lot of work regionally. Every tour we take time to do more remote area teaching, going back to country doing workshops. When we finish a season with a main stage work then we then go back to country and do a series of workshops with the kids, we have a residency in the community. On every regional tour we also conduct workshops and we’re currently doing workshops online. There’s lots of outreach programmes and initiatives that we offer.
MDM: Is that the driver for you, to get out there and give others a sense that, you don’t have to do this, but you could. To show the possibilities.
Frances: For me it’s absolutely the driver. I teach classes on a Friday, in-kind classes. That’s my personal commitment to ensure that the next generation have access to industry professionals so that they know what they need to do to get to where they want to go. We have to ensure those younger people have that contact and are getting those classes, getting that information about the pathway.
And it’s not about funnelling them into Bangarra, but showing them there’s a place for them at many levels of our society. That, you know, we need them in schools, we need them as teachers, we need another company. And they can go to dance companies anywhere, they could go to Sydney Dance Company or ADT. It’s been wonderful to see Sydney Dance Company PPY taking on Indigenous dancers and training them up, to see this coming together, and not asking them to change, but actually using it as a two-way learning opportunity and a place of growing for all.
You know, for young people coming through it’s really important that they feel that their stories are relevant, that people are interested in what their story is, and I think the arts is a really good platform to do that.
BANGARRA DANCE THEATRE, TERRAIN
MDM: How has the Black Lives Matter movement, as it’s been expressed in recent weeks, impacted on you? What have you felt personally?
Frances: Every day there’s new information, new reports coming through, and you know, it’s definitely kind of created a sense of hope, but we want to keep traction, for it to turn into action. I think it’s easy for us in Australia to kind of become complacent again, and we need to make sure that we continue to move forward regards race relations in this country. We have a Prime Minister that denies that there’s been slavery, that there is a history of slavery in this country. He doesn’t know the history on which this country was founded, and on which this country created its wealth within the pastoral industry, off Indigenous workers, stock men and our women as domestics. These are the parts of history that need to be taught about, that people need to know.
Australia has a great way of saying, Oh … but it’s in the past, so let’s move on, it doesn’t matter.
Well it does matter. My Grandmother was a domestic, and I want to be able to say that the sacrifices she made have been acknowledged by people that might not know her, but that she’s been given respect; both her and her generation, that their contribution is acknowledged.
I think that Australia still needs to grow as a community, we need to come together, and the Uluru Statement is the perfect example of that. We need our government to reconsider and understand that we need a seat at the table, to be able to have a voice in the decisions that are being made regarding Indigenous people. There’s lots of things, but you know, this is a start. And I think that, with a sense of hope and positivity that change, coming together can happen.
Change. People fear it. But it’s a way of growing and becoming the mature Nation that we deserve to be and that’s the kind of future that we want to give our children.
Thank you Frances for being so generous with your time and sharing your thoughts and experiences with us.