Bangarra Dance Choreographer Frances Rings On Terrain

Rebecca Varidel
1st Mar 2016

"So Terrain is a work that is very special to me. It's a work that is inspired by Lake Eyre in South Australia. I created this work because I wanted people to understand the lens through which indigenous people view our relationship to country and understand about how important that relationship is for our spirit and our belonging."

After the world premiere season in 2012, Terrain the stunning soulful contemporary dance and storytelling by celebrated Aboriginal choreographer Frances Rings, won two Helpmann Awards including Best Ballet/Dance Work.

Rebecca Varidel met with her in the Bangarra Dance Theatre rehearsal studio to learn more.

Before we get on to Terrain, you've had such an amazing and varied career, and studying in New York a dancer yourself as most choreographers are, what are some of the highlights during your career?

Well recently I have been fortunate to work with other first nations people internationally, other artists, on collaborations, and that's been really rewarding; that's been a really healthy experience to be able to do that and then take some of the rigour around that experience into my own practice. So I think I've had a long and extensive career with Bangarra and felt a little bit like I needed to do something that just fed me, inspired me, and motivated me, and speak with other artists, with other first nations artists internationally, and even just chat about talk about what's happening in your country. So a really healthy dialogue, that was inspiring. And then getting into a studio and translating some of that into movement phrases, and having that kind of seed. Even just learning other methodologies. That's been quite inspiring.

So that was with Sandy Smith and the Dance Theater of Harlem in Toronto.

And also last year I was a guest artist actually. It hadn't been on stage in 10 years. This was my first time as a guest artist.

A dancer always takes class though. Was it challenging?

Yeah. I try to keep myself fit. I don't let myself go. I do class all the time. I think once you're a dancer, you're always a dancer. It's really hard to let go of that and not be conscious about your body, keeping it in shape, keeping it healthy. You spend your whole youth having that expectation. Wanting it to be prime. It has to be. You're doing back to back productions. It's extensive, long hours.

I used to smoke when I was younger.

A lot of dancers smoke don't they? Because of that whole not eating, keeping slim.

No. Well, it wasn't about that. It was just I kind of thought it was cool. And I actually liked that. I used to smoke rollies. I liked the ritual. But then I kind of got bored with it. What am I doing it for. And now I have children so there's no way I go near cigarettes, and you know it smells.

But I try and encourage a healthy upbringing, a healthy lifestyle and to practice that myself.

But yeah, so I guested last year with Atamira Dance Company who are Auckland based Maori contemporary company and I really loved that. It was a work called MitiMiti choreographed by Jack Gray and it was fantastic to get on stage and I worked with, I did a duet with Taiaroa Royal who is one of the lead premier Maori performers. He's danced with Black Grace, Atamari and he has his own company called Okareka. And that's been a long time kind of dream. I've always wanted to work with him from seeing him very early days at Adelaide Festival with Black Grace.

Because you're from Adelaide?

I am from Adelaide, yeup. Well I was born in Adelaide but I didn't really grow up there. I grew up here in Port Augusta.

So yeah, that's been my recent experiences that I've loved. I'm lucky I get to kind of pick and choose a little bit what projects I get involved with. Obviously I am balancing, with my family, my children, and you know my work.

I'm lucky that I can kind of have those experiences that I really want to be involved with. They inspire me.

Perhaps you make your own luck. So, moving back to your time at Bangarra and the long history you've had here and I suppose today we are talking about Terrain and the early inspiration for that choreography.

So it was my early inspiration for that. There were a few things that triggered this. I'd lost my father in twenty eleven. I was right in the middle of creating this work. But my father, he came out from Germany, and he lived in South Australia and he was on the railways and he felt his spirit came alive out there when he was in the desert, on country, just loved the Australian landscape. And I think that's probably where I first got that passion and that love for country and for going out bush and being surrounded by nature, and yeah, I think that was the first appreciation that came from a German man of all places and being indigenous myself, so that's probably a bit weird for people, but yeah I was brought up by him and then much on later finding out about my own culture and identity. Obviously that you understand that how important it is to have that, to have that connection to country, to know that you belong to a land, and that your family comes from that country, and that sense of belonging is inherent and it's something that stays with you whether you are in the city, or whether you live in town, or whether you live in you know Castlereagh Street or wherever, it's that sense of belonging that you have. And you don't have to be indigenous to understand that.

So that was something I really wanted to share with audiences as well, was that sense of understanding the lens through which indigenous people view country and our relationship to county. About understanding the power of what the natural world and what landscape is. About understanding why you see some areas are sacred, and why it's powerful. I think it gives us perspective and it also, it allows us to connect with something. It allows us to understand our place. And the bigger picture. We're all part of it. What we do 200km down the road from Lake Eyre can affect water holes. There's a chain reaction. We need to understand that. We need to respect country. I think we're spoilt here in Australia. There are so many incredibly beautiful geographical wonders. We have the Great Barrier Reef, we have the Kimberleys, we have Lake Eyre, we have Uluru and I want people to understand that those places are important. That they need to be protected. That we all have a responsibility to do that.

Terrain returns to the stage in 2016 with an award-winning creative team of Aboriginal artists: choreographer Frances Rings, composer David Page and set designer Jacob Nash. Together along with costume designer Jennifer Irwin and lighting designer Karen Norris, they have created an evocative production inspired by the timeless beauty of Lake Eyre. Riverside Theatres will host Terrain’s first revival performance, which will then tour regionally and return to the areas around Lake Eyre in South Australia, the work’s inspiration, at the end of the year.

In the first performances at Riverside Theatre since 2010, the acclaimed Bangarra Dance Theatre returns with Terrain this week on March 4th and 5th.

Photo of Frances Rings by Tiffany Parker