Dance is a language we can feel: Bangarra's Artist-in-residence Kathy Balngayngu Marika

Kathy Balngayngu Marika  Photo: Danielle Lyonne
Kathy Balngayngu Marika. Image by Danielle Lyonne

Born in Yirrkala, North East Arnhem Land, Kathy Balngayngu Marika is the current artist-in-residence and cultural consultant at Bangarra.

This year she celebrates ten years with the company whom she regards as her family. AussieTheatre’s Dione Joseph recently caught up with Kathy Marika to take a wander down memory lane.

As the youngest sister of five girls (now sadly only four) Kathy has always been surrounded by examples of strong women. Over time she has become known not only as a senior elder of her clan, but also as a well loved member of the many different family circles to which she belongs.

“From the time when we were little, when we started to walk, run; that’s when we started to dance,” says Kathy, “We used to dance alongside, with our mothers, grandmothers, aunties; all together.”

From those first dances, whether for funerals, anniversaries, or initiation ceremonies, Kathy and her sisters, along with other women, would be invited to be part of the celebration.

“For those special events we wanted to make it fun, especially for the boys whose time had come, we wanted to make the boys laugh.”

Laughter was a big part of family life. It was the support and encouragement from her family that encouraged Kathy, then aged forty, to join the National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association (NAISDA). “At that time the studio was based at Broadway, coming to Cumberland Street here under the bridge. It was very different to what it is now but it started me off on a journey.”

That journey eventually led to a relationship with Bangarra Dance Theatre in 2003, heralding a new wave of Indigenous dance and responding to the social and political issues of the time.

“This was a time for new work, but productions and performances that were meant for healing – not just families but healing the nation …  To be able to dance contemporary and traditional styles was a magnificent moment for me because I can look back today and see that those first opportunities to share my language, my culture and my spirit on stage was the start of a tremendous journey”, remembers Kathy.

Since then Kathy has worked on numerous productions and has travelled with Bangarra to London and New York as well as Mongolia and most recently to Saigon.

“I am honoured to share my culture with the world and delight in the fact that the world can see its beauty as well,” she says.

For Kathy working with Bangarra has been like being part of a huge family. She is very proud of the work the company produces, and also of every individual involved: “Stephen and David (the brothers Page) … they both call me ‘Mum’ and that’s who I am to them,” she explains, “A mother, a grandmother, an aunty and a sister and we all help each other out whether in rehearsal for a show or something personal, we just take it all one step at a time and we do it together.”

Currently Kathy’s granddaughter is also contemplating a professional career in dance and her grandmother couldn’t be prouder. “I believe in encouragement, and especially for young people. Whether it’s in teaching them traditional arts like weaving or painting or just telling stories, very often all they’re missing is love.”

And it's not just Indigenous youngsters but all young people whom Kathy is talking about.

“Every person needs to be loved and especially young people. It takes effort but we need to see that we can only get through life if we are willing to carry each other at some point or another.”

Through her role as adviser and artist Kathy adopts the language of dance to create a glimpse of Indigenous culture, not as a mere token but as a living, breathing, organic and thriving entity that is constantly engaging in dialogue with the past, the present and the future.

“Dance is a language we can feel when we’re sad and we’re grieving. We feel through the dance and we share through the dance and instead of holding it in we express it all, we sing through our dance”, says Kathy

Currently Bangarra’s all Indigenous ensemble are taking Kinship (including the iconic Brolga and very sophisticated ID) to regional Australia and Kathy is excitedly looking forward to this tour: “We are sending a message through our dance, back home to our people but also to the people out west, north, east, south and to the centre,” she says, “All the people will remember that we are one people of this country and that being united, not divided is our greatest strength.”

Kinship Ensemble  Photo: Jeff Busby
Kinship Ensemble
Photo: Jeff Busby

If  'dancing is the soul’s expression of its youth', then Kathy Balngayngu Marika is its living embodiment and Bangarra and its extended family, including all the audiences here in Australia and overseas, are incredibly lucky because, as she quips, “In some way I’m everyone’s Aunty!”

Kinship will tour Victoria starting at the Geelong Performing Arts Centre on August 15, 2013. The tour will then move on to Dandenong, Mildura, Warragul, Sale, Frankston and Nunawading before concluding with shows in Hobart on September 12 and 13.

For full details:  Bangarra Dance Theatre