Thomas E.S. Kelly explains 'Silence'

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Thomas E.S. Kelly upholds that “the power of the space between” is a culturally illuminating description of SILENCE, the new dance work he is presenting in the Brisbane Festival this year.

The dance is based on two images from his own Bundjalung-Yugambeh and Wiradjuri cultural archetypes and customs; the emu and the cut.

The emu in the sky is significant throughout Australia. “Most groups have the story of the emu in the sky, which is seen in the night sky, the Milky Way,” Kelly explains, “but the interesting thing about it is that it’s not made up of any stars; it’s made up of the space between the stars. So, it’s not the stars that demand you attention, it’s what’s behind that, it’s what is in between.” 

Image by Jamie James
Image by Jamie James

The cut, he notes, is when you watch great traditional dance and the people doing it know what they’re doing. This image, he adds, comes from his own experience. “The cut is the end moment when everyone stops, whether the dancers are doing the same thing or dancing their own style, recreating their own animals. This for me, through my learning and training as I grew up, is the most powerful moment in cultural dancing. When everyone stops, when it’s done properly, it feels like everything, not just the dancers but almost time also stops, and in that moment, you see the spirits that are dancing with them, you feel the energies that have been brought into the space. It's so powerful.”

Kelly says the political significance of the dance comes from a conversation that is 250 years overdue. “First Nations sovereignty has never been ceded,” he says. “When are we going to have a real conversation about this?”

The most important thing, he goes on, is establishing a Treaty. “Whether it’s land rights or sovereignty, it all falls under Treaty negotiations. We’re the only Commonwealth country in the world that doesn’t have one and we’ve never had one. That is the grounds for significant disadvantage we still face today. When we’re told to ‘get over it’, that we’re all one Australia, without a Treaty, we’re really not. And we’re really not because the textbooks still start with Cook ‘discovering’ Australia. Truth telling as part of the Treaty negotiations needs to correct this misinformation in our history books.”

Silence is a journey of what’s not being said expressed through the potent language of dance. Yet, “I see my peers being political. I’ve seen Treaty in music, visual arts, theatre, writing and literature and I want to contribute my personal understanding of this in a dance work. I’m really excited about where this is going to go.”

Kelly, who is a Bundjalung-Yugambeh, Wiradjuri and Ni-Vanuatu man, created SILENCE when he was one of the first people to be granted a residency with the First Nations contemporary dance company, Blakdance, in Brisbane. Kelly was selected by local community members in Meanjin (Brisbane), including one of the first Aboriginal ballerinas from the 1970’s, Roslyn Watson. Kelly’s work is also the first independent, full-length First Nations contemporary dance work to be performedon a stage in over Brisbane in a decade. Prior to that it was Marilyn Miller’s 'Quinkan' at the Festival of the Dreaming 2008. Silence is also the first full length independent Indigenous contemporary dance work to be commissioned by Brisbane Festival. 

Image by Simon Woods
Image by Simon Woods

Kelly’s original preparations for the Brisbane Festival were, of course, impacted by Covid. He was slated to have two separate four-week development periods, in April and August. Instead, the final development has grown to a full eight weeks in the theatre which, Kelly admits, is a creator’s dream. He also secured an extra grant through Australia Council’s Resilience Fund to support two weeks of online design development. This allowed multiple discussions over Zoom to dream and design elements with a stellar creative team; Selene Cochrane (costume), Karen Norris (lighting), Alethea Beetson (dramaturgy), Vicki Van Hout (choreographic dramaturgy), Sam Pankhurst (musical direction) and Jhindu Lawrie (composer and live percussion).

“Some of it hasn’t been the physical challenge of how we get this up because of Covid. It’s been a big mental challenge,” he admits. “We’ve had just as many chats with Brisbane Festival about it happening as we have about it not happening.” The support from BlakDance, the show’s producers, has also been invaluable.“Everyone believes in this work; we’re hitting it and that’s exciting.”

Image by Jamie James
Image by Jamie James

SILENCE Details:

Where: Powerhouse Theatre, Brisbane Powerhouse

Dates: Thursday 10 – Sunday 13 September

Times: Thu – Sat 7:30pm, Sat 2pm, Sun 2pm

Tickets: $25 + booking fee

More information here.

Cover image by Kate Homes

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