“To me dance is everything. What I love about dance is that you're able to escape from reality, you become a different person, your spirit comes out and takes over.” When dance is everything there are no unsurmountable obstacles and fear only makes you try harder. Lillian Banks is still at the beginning of her story, but that beginning is already infused with triumphs.
Confidence has been Lillian Bank’s ally from the start. “My sisters and I would always perform in front of the family, singing songs and creating dance routines,” she recalls. “I would be leading them, telling them what to do while they would be following behind me. I was always in the centre-front.”
In primary school, Banks was part of the Dream Time Dancers, a community dance group for young people in Broome in West Australia where she grew up. Its dance style was a blend of contemporary and Indigenous. “We learned dances and how to paint-up, learned about our culture and building self-confidence,” she notes.
It wasn't until high school at St Marys College Broome that Banks began doing dance technique as a subject. “Our teacher, Vicki Thompson, really opened my eyes to all the different styles that dance has to offer. At this point, it wasn't anything serious because I was really into sports and athletics and I was focused more on competing with the Broome high schools and places just outside of Broome.”
That changed in 2013, Banks’ last year of high school. She won National VET Student of The Year. “This really opened my eyes knowing I could become a dancer or learn more about it. However, I couldn't do it in Broome, because there weren’t many options.” Vicki Thompson provided those options. She took Banks and a few students from Broom to Gosford in the Central Coast of NSW to see what NAISDA (National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association) had to offer.
Later that year, Banks returned to audition for NAISDA. “I didn’t think I was going to get in, but I knew it would be good to experience - and I was happy with any opportunity to leave Broome for a week. Meeting all these amazing people from all around Australia auditioning for NASIDA was so incredible,” she remembers.
“We learned different genres of dance that I have never done before, which was such a big eye opener for me. Being in a new place was very intimidating. Not only did we do ballet, contemporary, jazz but we also did cultural from the Torres Strait Islands which so amazing.”
After a long wait, NAISDA phoned her to tell her she had been accepted. “I was super shocked but so excited, so I sorted everything out and next thing you know I'm living in the Central Coast NSW training in dance. It took me a while to get used to the place and to figure out if this was what I wanted.
“I found it really hard being away from family living on theother side of Australia, I often thought about going back and leaving NAISDA,” she admits. “If it wasn’t for the amazing teachers constantly pushing me and making me think about what I was doing, helping me make goals reminding me of how far I’ve come I thought, ‘I've made it this far just keep going’. My family was supporting me, reminding me that this was such an amazing opportunity and to ‘just keep smashing it - Broome will always be here’.”
After many ups and downs, a lot of tears and ample amounts of compensating laughter at NAISDA, Banks graduated with a Diploma in Dance in 2017.
“Getting close to ending the year, everyone had to start figuring out what the next step would be. I had no idea what I wanted to do but Bangarra was one of the companies that stood out for me. It was a dream job,” she says. “Frances Rings, formerly at NAISDA, now associate artistic director at Bangarra, pushed me and encouraged me to fill out my application. Next thing you know I was shortlisted to do the audition. I was so scared because it was a one-day audition. We did class with the company, met everyone and learned some repertoire from the senior dancers. We learnt Responding from Bennelong and White from Ochres. I was shaking, thinking, ‘Is this really happening right now?’”
Then Stephen Page walked in to watch what the applicants had learned at the end of the day. “I remember standing in the front not knowing what I was doing. Stephen just sat there watching us,” she remembers.
“As I was walking out of the audition, I wasn’t happy with how I did and gave up on thinking that I would ever be in Bangarra. I kept reliving the day thinking, ‘I should have done this or this,’ but it was too late, I couldn’t go back.”
A week later, Banks received the call that told her she had been chosen to be one of the Russell Page Graduates for next year. “It took me so long to process and to realise I was going to be part of a company that I have looked up to for years,” she recalls.
Banks has clearly thrived at Bangarra. That reached a peak when she danced in the ABC documentary, Freeman. In his interview with Sydney Morning Herald journalist, Ben Pobjie, Bangarra Dance Theatre artistic director, Stephen Page, recalled her meeting with Cathy Freeman. “When Cathy saw what Lillian was doing – moving her body and representing this eternal spirit and energy – Cathy got it straight away. So Cathy just kept smiling…Cathy was sharing these stories with Lillian, and here Lillian was with this role model in front of her. They didn’t say a lot, but they just smiled a lot at each other. It was just a wonderful connection.”
Behind Banks’ rise as a dancer is a long list of supporters, she says. “To this day I am so grateful for that and to still have them by my side. If it wasn't for Vicky Thompson pushing me, being patient and taking the time to show me what more is out there, I would not have become a dancer at all,” she notes. Her family, she adds, always supported her decisions and constantly told her how proud they were of her. “This still motivates me to keep pushing for what I love.” Then there is everyone at NAISDA, “because that's where the dream really started to become a dancer and they never gave up on me. And finally, her family at Bangarra. “Being here for three years now, everything about this company and the people constantly reminds me of why I am here and why I am doing what I am doing.”
Bangarra is a large part of why dance is “everything” to Banks. “With Bangarra productions we're always playing different characters, telling our stories and we get so lost in the story, movement and music - it's the best feeling. Now, I really do appreciate dance more. I don't know what I would do without it, it's my medicine. When I'm feeling all sorts of emotions it's always there for me and I know I can always count on it to keep me grounded and bring me back to where I need to be.
“It has definitely shaped me as a dancer and who I am as a person,” she adds. “I understand my body a lot more and just being able to move and imitate things is so amazing to see what dance can bring.
I am so grateful to be where I am today. I am always challenged and there is so much more for me to learn. I'm super excited to explore more with Bangarra and to see what more is out there.”
- CANDIDE MCDONALD
Freeman is still available on ABC Iview: https://iview.abc.net.au/show/freeman/