First Nations work a Bespoke first for Queensland Ballet

Queensland Ballet’s inaugural First Nations work is the creation of former Bangarra Dance Theatre dancer turned choreographer Katina Olsen

Jul 11, 2024, updated Jul 11, 2024
Choreographer Katina Olsen is creating Queensland Ballet's inaugural First Nations work. Photo: Kate Holmes

Choreographer Katina Olsen is creating Queensland Ballet's inaugural First Nations work. Photo: Kate Holmes

In an upstairs studio at Queensland Ballet’s Thomas Dixon Centre the company is crafting its inaugural First Nations work.

Choreographer and dancer Katina Olsen is lovingly creating gundirgan, wise woman, the story of Queensland Aboriginal elder Aunty Maureen Williams. It’s special that the soundtrack for the work, part of this year’s Bespoke program running at QB’s Talbot Theatre from July 25 to August 3, features Wakka Wakka didgeridoo soloist Chris Williams, grandson of Aunty Maureen.

Music for Olsen’s work is performed and commissioned by Southern Cross Soloists and the SXS Didgeridoo Commissioning Project, composed by Seán O’Boyle and Chris Williams.

The primal sound of the digeridoo fills the rehearsal studio as the dancers move to the music, creating a poetic homage. The movements echo First Nations ceremonial dance although Olsen, who is a Wakka Wakka and Kombumerri woman based on the Sunshine Coast (Gubbi Gubbi country) explains that she is using her imagination, since much of her cultural heritage was lost with the advent of colonisation.

“I wasn’t able to learn my Wakka Wakka cultural dances that existed before colonisation,” Olsen explains. “It hit us hard and affected what was passed down to us. So this piece is about resurgence, reclaiming and bringing back what we know.”

Olsen is working with QB dancers to create the piece.

“But I also wanted to invite a First Nations dancer to embody Aunty Maureen,” she says, adding that she chose Tara Roberston, who is central to the work, as guest soloist.

Olsen and Williams and his family gathered on Wakka Wakka country at Ban Ban Springs near Gayndah as part of the process. Williams’ sister is Sue-Anne Williams, a former dancer with the acclaimed Bangarra Dance Theatre. Olsen also danced with Bangarra for some years and toured with them internationally.

Olsen studied dance in Brisbane at the Queensland Dance School of Excellence at Kelvin Grove State College, the precursor organisation to the Queensland Ballet  Academy. Her return to the QB fold is something of a full-circle moment. It’s even more momentous when you consider that this is the first time a First Nations work has been brought to the stage by the company.

QB executive producer Craig Cathcart explains that before Covid, the company had been working with another former Bangarra dancer, Daniel Riley, to create a First Nations work.

“We had Daniel Riley in development but Covid put a stop to that,” Cathcart explains. “We were looking at future dates and then he got the job as artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre. It is possible we will revisit his work at some later stage.”

But for now, they have Olsen’s ready to go.

“It’s extraordinary to have someone like Katina working with us,” Cathcart says. “It will really help our understanding and learning and hopefully it’s just the start.”

Olsen’s work will feature SXS soloists musicians including Williams on stage.

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Bespoke is a triple bill, which will also feature Birds of Paradise by Milena Sidorova and Papillon, a piece by local rising star Jack Lister. Lister, a former QB dancer, is associate artistic director with Australasian Dance Collective and, like Olsen, he is still dancing as well as choreographing. His work was created quite organically.

“I went in with some movement ideas and we just started building something as various atmospheres and qualities came into the work,” Lister says.

He has been a stalwart of QB’s annual Bespoke program. Papillon will be more colourful than some of his previous, more minimalistic works. He says he will transform the Talbot Theatre in a “dream state” and will use voice and text in the work as well as colourful costumes.

“The costumes are pretty wild actually, “ Lister says. “They are very visual, very textual and there will be these massive pops with various colours.”

Cathcart says the upcoming season of Bespoke promises to be another exciting one.

Bespoke continues to push the boundaries of contemporary dance and the development of new work,” he says. “This year we collaborate with such exceptional choreographers and composers and promise to deliver an unforgettable experience for this seventh season.”

Bespoke, July 25 to August 3, Thomas Dixon Centre, West End

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