Interview with Elma Kris from Bangarra Dance Company

Bangarra’s Elma Kris’ inspiration to become a dancer came from an unexpected source. A dancer and choreographer with the indigenous dance company, Kris found her calling watching morning TV as a child in her parents’ living room on Thursday Island.

First published in The Illawarra Mercury on September 1, 2011.Bangarra-Belong


“In the 1980s, when the only TV channel we could get on the island was the ABC, I would watch music videos in the morning and that’s where I first discovered Michael Jackson,” she says.

“We had timber floors and I would dance around the living room, bouncing around on the floorboards mimicking Michael Jackson and wake my mother.”

Kris went from dancing around her parents’ living room to professional dance training and finally teaching dance at the Thursday Island TAFE.

“Originally I wanted to learn traditional Torres Strait dance to connect with my culture,” she says.

“But going to the TAFE I was able to learn a whole lot of different dance techniques as well, like modern, jazz and ballet, and it opened my eyes.”

After a few years dancing and choreographing with indigenous dance troupes and appearing in films such as Oscar and Lucinda, Reef Dreaming and Farscape, Kris went on to join Bangarra as a dancer in 1999 and has been with the award-winning dance company since.

She is in the Illawarra for the show Belong, which is a combination of two pieces – ID by Bangarra artistic director Stephen Page, and About by Kris.

In ID, Page explores through dance the important political and social questions concerning indigenous people in modern Australia, based on the personal observations of people tracing their bloodlines and reconnecting with traditional culture.

About is Kris’ second choreographic work for Bangarra and is inspired by her own Torres Strait Islander customs passed down through the generations, reflecting the strong links between communities and the natural environment.

The production has had an enormously successful season so far, receiving critical acclaim, full houses and standing ovations in Sydney, Perth and Canberra.

Kris believes the success of Belong lies in the way in which the company tells its stories to the wider community.

“We are story-tellers of our people and we’re able to offer large audiences the opportunity to embrace a concept through our art,” she says.

“Through our stories we can offer audiences this connection, whether that be to the land, the sky, the sea, or to the politics of our people.”

About is a creative representation of the Torres Strait story that explores the mood of the winds as they move across land, sea and sky, signifying key moments in time.

“I was inspired by my parents, who told us about (the story of the four winds) when we were young, as it was passed down to them,” she says.

“We were told about the winds, which are a part of our everyday life, so we were able to understand the importance and impact of the nature around us – as the Torres Strait is isolated from the mainland, the winds were like a compass to us.

“My challenge was to develop character moods for each of these four winds, which are viewed by the people kind of like spirits – you can’t see the wind, but you can see its effects all around us.”

Kris says developing the character moods for the winds was like painting on a canvas and the result is a beautiful and unforgettable representation of the story through dance.

“As a Torres Strait Islander woman, I am very excited to once again bring a new story from the Torres Strait Islands to others that has inspired me,” she says.

Kris says being a part of Bangarra Dance Theatre is important for her connection to her own heritage as an indigenous person. She hopes it inspires other indigenous people to find forums in which to express their own connection to who they are.

“The indigenous stories that Bangarra tells through dance are Australian stories – they belong to all of us,” she says.

“Not only am I a dancer with Bangarra, I’m also an indigenous person and we all need to tell our story – through Bangarra’s productions and education programs, we hope to inspire young people to get out there and find expression for their own stories, too.”

She says by telling their stories, indigenous people are continuing an age-old tradition and ensuring their place in Australian culture.

Bangarra’s talented crew of indigenous dancers come from a variety of different geographical and cultural backgrounds but Kris says despite this they all share a special familial connection.

All of the dancers look up to the company’s artistic director Page, who Kris says they consider as their elder.

“Stephen’s like our father or elder brother who nurtures and challenges us and I think he perceives us as his younger brothers and sisters,” she says.

“He can be strict – he’s the boss – but we all like to play with him sometimes, push the boundaries a bit, but he can be quick to put us back in our place if we go too far, like in any family.

“You’re not just a member of a dance company at Bangarra, you challenge yourself, you grow as a person and you become a family.

“You are embraced no matter where you’re from, which is what Bangarra really is all about.”

© 2011 Fairfax