Taree Sansbury weaves Ngarrindjeri traditions with contemporary dance

Dancer and choreographer Taree Sansbury returns home with her first full-length work, mi:wi, which intertwines contemporary Indigenous dance with traditional Ngarrindjeri weaving

In 2015, Queensland-based dancer and choreographer Taree Sansbury was back home in SA visiting family when she observed her nana weaving. “I’m from Ngarrindjeri country, and weaving is one of our cultural practices so it’s not an unusual thing to see, but I’d never seen my nana do it herself before,” says Sansbury, who grew up in the Port Adelaide area. “I’m a bit of a nerd, so if any of my family are doing any arts or culture stuff, I’m immediately in their face, wanting to see what they’re doing,” she laughs.

She’d recently graduated from a four year dance diploma at NAISDA, an Indigenous training college located on the NSW Central Coast, and was quietly digging around for ideas for her first full-length piece. “After NAISDA, I formed a little trio with my now-partner Thomas E.S. Kelly and my sister Caleena, and we were working under the mentorship of Vicki Van Hout, an incredible Indigenous choreographer,” says Sansbury. “She was amazing at getting us out there, helping us network and involving us in her shows.”

But Sansbury had caught the choreographic bug and was desperate to start making work of her own. “I started to choreograph a bit at NAISDA and, in my first year out of college I did a choreographic residence at Campbelltown Arts Centre under the guidance of [Indigenous choreographer] Frances Rings,” she says. “As soon as I saw my nana weaving, I knew that I wanted to tell a story around that.”

Caleena Sansbury and Katina Olsen (Photo: Gregory Lorenzatti)
Caleena Sansbury and Katina Olsen (Photo: Gregory Lorenzatti)

She already had an endpoint in mind: Next Wave Festival, the biennial arts festival based in Melbourne that’s long been instrumental in promoting and showcasing the work of young and emerging artists. “When I saw that they  were advertising for call-outs, I was like, ‘I think I have a story’, even though at this stage the show was just an idea in my mind,” she says. “It was so great to have a deadline, to have something to work towards. Otherwise I think good ideas can often be put on the backburner.”

Sansbury closely studied the looping, repetitive movements that her nana made while weaving, and the patterns that were formed as the reeds turned into tangible objects. “I thought a lot about how the motion of weaving could be interpreted through movement,” she says. “And at the start of every day, everyone involved in the project would do a bit of weaving so that we all had a direct physical history with the thing that I was exploring.”

In 2018, Sansbury debuted mi:wi, her first full-length piece as both dancer and choreographer to a packed audience at the Northcote Town Hall in Melbourne. In July, she’ll bring the show to South Australia for the first time for a two-night run at Vitalstatistix’s Waterside venue. Through the lens of three Indigenous women, mi:wi uses the practice of traditional Ngarrindjeri weaving to examine the invisible ties we have to our past and future, people and country. “It speaks to the impact of climate change on our ways of life, while also emphasising the importance of passing on culture to future generations,” says Sansbury.

Caleena Sansbury, Katina Olsen and Taree Sansbury (Photo: Gregory Lorenzatti)
Caleena Sansbury, Katina Olsen and Taree Sansbury (Photo: Gregory Lorenzatti)

It’s a dance work rich with the experience of Indigenous women: the piece is performed by Sansbury, her sister Caleena Sansbury (who are Kaurna, Narungga and Ngarrindjeri women) and Katina Olsen (a Wakka Wakka and Kombumerri woman), the lighting is the work of Cheryl Frost, a Yuwaalaraay woman, and costumes by Darug woman Peta Strachan. “It wasn’t until I had this incredible team together that I realised everyone except our wonderful sound designer Alyx Dennison was Indigenous, and we were all women,” says Sansbury. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is my fantasy coming true’.”

In creating the arresting backdrop, a screen made of vertical strips of fabric onto which are projected images of traditional elders weaving, Sansbury had the help of Phyllis Williams, a Ngarrindjeri elder – and, of course, her nana. “I put her in the budget as my support team,” laughs Sansbury, “so I was able to fly her over to Melbourne to see the show. When it comes to Adelaide, I’m counting on her to mobilise a few people for me. She’s going to be my audience rounder.”

Thursday, July 11 to Friday, July 12

Murray Bridge Town Hall
Tuesday, July 9


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