Students from the NAISDA (the National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association) Dance College will this week bring something old and something new to Carriageworks, presenting Wild Fire – Old Ways, New Voices, a collection of contemporary dance pieces inspired by traditional Indigenous dance practices.

Choreographers Graeme Watson, Deon Hastie, Beau Dean Smith, Charles Koroneho and Jason Pitt have each contributed a piece each for the program. Pitt, who’s openly gay, focuses on issues of identity and stereotyping in his untitled work.

“The work was originally going to be a film project, but was sidetrack by other commissioned projects,” he told the Star Observer.

“It wasn’t until the controversy on Hey Hey It’s Saturday with the group performing in blackface, that reignited my interest to revisit the subject matter.

“I see the work as a ‘choreographic resurfacing’ of stereotypes, specifically these images of the blackface from the minstrel era.”

Pitt said the work should resonate with both black and white audiences, hopefully prompting viewers to question the more cliched aspects of our collective national identity.

“Just this morning, as I watched the rehearsal for the piece, a particular hand gesture by the dancer for a split second made me consider issues regarding our national identity, and about what is really ‘Australian’. How many of us really do say ‘G’day mate’ or ‘Crikey’, or have we just become caricatures or stereotypes of ourselves as a nation?” he questioned.

Pitt is on a quest for truth in dance — as he sees it, an Indigenous performance that rests on cliches and stereotypes threatens to become just another form of blackface.

“I hope (that’s) something Indigenous audiences — and particularly Indigenous art practitioners ­­— will consider (when watching the piece). The current output of work within the realm of dance has often catered to a romanticised, 1950s, anthropological gaze of Indigenous people, possibly in order to satisfy the mainstream or commercial arena,” he said.

“This raises the problematic question, have we sold out? And if so, can this practice of ‘painting up in ochre’ become a new form of blackface – have we become caricatures of ourselves too?”

As a former NAISDA student himself, Pitt went on to train with the London Contemporary Dance Theatre, The Alvin Ailey American Dance Center and the Merce Cunningham Studio and has worked with NAISDA Developing Artists since 2004. He admitted he suffered no fools when working with younger, less experienced dancers than himself.

“I think the students found me to be very scary or strict. But this is how I was trained as a dancer, and it’s the type of choreographers I worked for who were very strict, demanding, intense and difficult,” Pitt said.

“I also think a lot of them really wanted to follow the pathway I trained in as a dancer. But I try to tell them that everyone has their own unique path.”

info: Wild Fire – Old Ways, New Voices plays at Carriageworks from November 25-27.

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