This weekend, Australia’s fifth annual national First Nations dance competition Dance Rites returns to the Sydney Opera House Forecourt over two days for a free, cross-generational celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance, language and culture for the whole family.
Dance Rites 2019 will welcome more than 300 performers from all corners of Australia to one of the world’s most spectacular outdoor stages, Bennelong Point. Formerly known as Tubowgule, Bennelong Point has been a meeting place for storytelling, ritual celebration and dance for tens of thousands of years.
The dance groups – many spanning generations and an array of distinctive nations and clans – will travel to Sydney to participate in this high-profile event designed to safeguard, revitalise and share First Nations cultural practices impacted by more than 200 years of colonisation.
Since its inception in 2015, Dance Rites has promoted youth empowerment and cultural knowledge in First Nations communities, and increased confidence through custodial leadership at a grassroots and local level.
“Dance Rites has evolved into a significant national event that celebrates First Nations cultural heritage,” said Don Harwin, NSW Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and the Arts. It’s wonderful to see the Sydney Opera House provide a national stage and meeting place for First Nations groups to come together for vital cultural exchange.”
Each group will showcase their culture through three dances: a welcome and a farewell dance and a ‘wildcard’ dance. An expert judging panel will assess the participating groups on the technical aspects of their performance and their engagement with language, skin-markings and traditional instruments.
The winning group will receive $20,000, one runner-up will receive $5,000, and $3,000 will go to the highest-scoring ‘wildcard’ dance. The Rite of Passage Award acknowledges a dance troupe’s outstanding contribution to revitalising cultural knowledge and practices.
This year’s professional program, staggered throughout the Dance Rites heats and finals, includes: The Narli Ensemble curated by Tura Music performing Kimberley Echoes – a powerful cross-cultural celebration about the Kimberley, its landscapes and its people. It will feature high profile First Nations artists and some of the country’s finest instrumentalists, including didgeridoo virtuoso and singer Mark Atkins (Yamatji) and singer/guitarist Stephen Pigram (Yawuru).
Rhyan Clapman (aka DOBBY) – a drapper (rapper and drummer) of Ngemba, Muruwari and Filipino heritage uses hip hop as a tool to express his culture, identity, knowledge and family; while OKA – an international collective lead by Stu Boga Fergie (aka DidgeriSTU) performs a mashup of dance and downtempo electro beats with influences spanning house, big beat, reggae-dub, roots, jazz and world music.
Indigenous Enterprise – a professional Native American group made up of champion dancers from tribes and nations across Canada and the United States performing powwow dances to preserve and progress traditional cultural practices; and returning Dance Rites 2018 winners Nunukul Yuggera from the Nunukul, Yuggera and Yugumbir nations in Queensland, will also perform.
During the 2019 registration period Sydney Opera House’s Head of First Nations Programming Rhoda Roberts AO and First Nations Producer Letila Mitchell travelled to remote, rural and regional areas around Australia to work with individuals, community groups, Aboriginal Land Councils and local councils to engage participants and local communities.
Sixteen groups across the country from The Kimberleys to Far North Queensland, the Tiwi Islands, Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and New South Wales have registered to date, including: Gracie’s Grannies (NSW), URAB Dancers (TS), Jannawi Dance Clan (NSW), Kawadji Wimpa (QLD), Rina Dancers (Tas), Dyiraamalang (NSW), Wagana (NSW), Mutitjulu Maruku Mob (NT), Docker River Maruku Mob (NT), Of Desert and Sea (SA), Kurruru & Iwiri Dance (SA), Wati Kutjungka Men (WA), Tiwi Sistergirls (NT), Yiiliwiyay-gurra Yuludarla-biin [Dances The Stories] (NSW), Swan Hill Aboriginal Dance Group (VIC) and Tal-kin-jeri (SA).
“Particularly in the UN International Year of Indigenous Languages, we invite all sectors of the community to experience the ancient traditions of the world’s oldest living culture,” said Rhoda Roberts AO. “By engaging with culture, we preserve and celebrate it for future generations.”
“This year, we’re thrilled to welcome internationally recognised performers Zaachariaha Fielding from Electric Fields and Emma Donovan who will fulfil their cultural obligation as song men and women for their respective clan groups, a testament to the deep significance of Dance Rites for the First People of Australia.”
Dance Rites takes place on the Sydney Opera House Forecourt: Saturday 23 & Sunday 24 November 2019. For more information, and complete program, visit: www.sydneyoperahouse.com for details.
Image: Dance Rites – photo by Anna Kucera