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Interview: Thomas ES Kelly – choreographer

Choreographer Thomas ES Kelly, who recently received the 2018 Dreaming Award. Photo Kate Holmes

[MIS]CONCEIVE by Thomas ES Kelly, NORPA at Lismore City Hall, Friday 29 June, 7.30pm & Saturday 30 June, 2pm & 7.30pm. Tickets $20–36.

What does an Aboriginal Australian look like? Act like? Sound like? Do they all have black skin, live in the bush, and are they naked?

Choreographer Thomas ES Kelly, who recently received the 2018 Dreaming Award (National Indigenous Art Award) for an emerging artist, will give you a clue – not all of them.

[MIS]CONCEIVE is Kelly’s powerful new dance-theatre that challenges the idea that knowledge equals comprehension. Using an exciting mash-up of traditional and contemporary styles, dance and spoken word  [MIS]CONCEIVE simultaneously rejects, reveals and re-educates (mis)undertstandings about what it means to be an Indigenous Australian.

Thomas sat still long enough last week to answer a few questions about dance and other stuff…

Why is dance such a great medium for storytelling?

Dance and choreography allow new worlds to be created without having to verbally describe them. This is important to me because people are able to get out of the show what they want. If I just say what’s going on and place it on a platter, then I feel sometimes it’s not always taken in and thought about.

With Bundjalung and Wiradjuri, Ni-Vanuatu and Irish ancestry, have you drawn on the heritage from all of your backgrounds when creating this piece?

In my overall practice yes; it’s growing more and more with each project. Obviously depending on the show I’m doing it may require more from one area of my backgrounds than another, but usually even then, in some way or another my entire identity is in the show.

Do you feel art – dance, theatre, music, poetry, puppetry and fine art – is the path to informing those who might not otherwise ‘get’ it?

I believe it is a way. Everyone learns differently and for some people some forms of art are not the path to understanding. However I find art is very informative and that’s what I am trying to do with my works. I still aim for excitement and high physicality; however, I try to make the content understandable without handing it to you.

What is the most important message or idea you would like audiences to come away with?

I always hope that all audiences, Indigenous or not, can come away from the show with at least one new positive look at Aboriginal people as well as a sense of pride regarding First Nations culture.

What one piece of advice would you offer non-Indigenous people in regards to Aboriginal people?

I would ask that you see everyone individually. Everyone has their own story; it doesn’t mean you have to be told it, but respect that they have theirs. So don’t categorise all Aboriginal people under one blackfella umbrella. 

Thomas ES Kelly has had a long association with NORPA – he was involved in the creative developments of Three Brothers and Djurra, and was in residency at NORPA in 2017 developing a new project called Wollumbin//Warning.

In [MIS]CONCEIVE Kelly and his ensemble move with assured physicality in this high-energy work that pulses with humour, play and personal stories. [MIS]CONCEIVE will play at NORPA next week.

[MIS]CONCEIVE by Thomas ES Kelly | NORPA at Lismore City Hall | Friday 29 June, 7.30pm | Saturday 30 June, 2pm & 7.30pm  | $20–36 | Bookings: www.norpa.org.au | 1300 066 772


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