Spotlight on Merindah Donnelly, Executive Producer at BlakDance
Wednesday, June 17, 2020
I acknowledge that it’s easier for this conversation to happen between us because I’m an Indigenous woman from Australia and therefore my engagement with ISPA doesn’t reveal the political and unresolved nature of colonization in the same way that it would for a Native American artist from the land where ISPA is based.
Tell us a little about you and the work of BlakDance?
I am a proud Aboriginal woman from New South Wales. My family comes from central western New South Wales, and I’m from the Wiradjuri Nation. I left my community when I was 14 to study classical ballet full-time at an elite ballet school in Sydney. I worked at the Australia Council for the Arts a decade ago and that was really my introduction to working in arts administration. I’ve always been part of the performing arts world that I now find myself in.
I’m about to graduate from the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) with a master’s in cultural leadership which is basically a degree on how to run an arts organization effectively in Australia. I am the Executive Producer of BlakDance. BlakDance is a national organization in Australia that supports the First Nations dance sector and industry development across the entire ecology with a focus on independent, First Nations dance makers and emerging, small to medium professional and contemporary First Nations dance companies. We train up and employ emerging First Nations producers, and we run a series of programs that respond to the needs of our sector.
We were founded in 2005 by Marilyn Miller. She was one of the founding members of Bangarra and she started BlakDance to create pathways for independent choreographers because as was the case in 2005 and still is the case now, there are no First Nations dance companies other than our big major dance company, Bangarra (who are amazing)! It’s probably reflective of deeper inequity that there’s only one major Indigenous dance company in Australia. We are a huge sector. There’s 100,000 cultural dance practitioners, there’s around 150 independent choreographers, there’s over 200 community cultural dance groups, and there’s generations upon generations of Indigenous dancers who have graduated from the two Indigenous dance training institutes in Australia, NAISDA and ACPA. There are over 50 non-Indigenous dance companies, so it doesn’t make sense that there is only one funded Indigenous dance company. This is why BlakDance exists – we use a combination of action advocacy and lobbying to try to increase the amount of funding to go towards Indigenous dancers and develop the capacity of artists to make and tour work.
How have you gone about addressing issues of connectivity during the pandemic?
Early on we recognized that social isolation would impact our communities, so we programmed a number of online Gatherings via zoom. We do a local one in Brisbane (Meanjin), which elders open and close and that enables the intergenerational transference of knowledge. We also do a national independent dance maker gathering, and we catch up with Ilbijerri, Moogahlin and Yirra Yaakin every fortnight, and as a result of that, we’ve been able to do some really great advocacy as a collective. We wrote a submission for the Covid-19 senate inquiry and we emphasized the need for a self-determined First Nations approach to recovery and we put in a lot of great recommendations. We collectively created a First Nations independent artists survey to understand the impact of Covid-19 on our communities.
We advocate collectively for our key priorities as a sector. We’re really concerned about our elders’ safety during the pandemic. They are high risk. Our elders often have multiple comorbidities and in Australia, Indigenous elders die 17 years younger than non-Indigenous elderly people because of those comorbidity rates, so we recognized really quickly that if we lost our elders, we lose the source of our cultural knowledge. Our elders are like living libraries and they’re the source of our culture, so without them we don’t have a performing arts sector. We’re also advocating for ways to remain spirituality strong because we’re such a connected culture. We’re advocating for our independent artists because the majority of First Nation artists are independent, and we knew that they were having trouble applying for the Australian government social benefit payments of job seeker and job keeper during Covid-19.
The global pandemic and international protests have reminded us of the systemic inequalities and racism that remains to be addressed. Do you see these issues as distinct to the U.S. or internationally pervasive?
No, they’re definitely internationally pervasive. Protests in Australia have been happening since colonization and the connection to the black civil rights movement and black power in Australia has been around for 100 years. There’s an activist named Gary Foley who made a show with Ilbijerri, about the history of protests in Australia and its connection to the black civil rights movement in the U.S. He talks about how sailors in the early 1900s were connecting with Aboriginal communities in Australia and talking about anti-racism movements and so the protest movement in Australia is very entrenched and has been happening for a very long time. One of the more notable protests in the last 50 years was the Tent Embassy protest in Canberra where Aboriginal people and activists fought for Aboriginal sovereignty, because in Australia there’s never been a negotiation of treaty so the whole country is unceded Aboriginal land. There were also a lot of protests in the 80s and 90’s about Aboriginal people being killed in police custody. There have been more than 432 Aboriginal deaths in custody since 1991.
The protests last weekend took place on a mass scale nationwide and were led by First Nation activists focused on Aboriginal lives matter, First Nation sovereignty and Aboriginal deaths in custody. It felt like a tipping point in Australia for awareness of the structural inequalities and structural racism that exists.
In your opinion, how do these major issues play out in the performing arts sector and do you have any suggestions on how we in the arts can create a more inclusive and equitable sector?
There’s been a lot of calling out of Australia’s arts and culture sector and its interconnectedness with colonialism. The arts that get financially supported are largely colonial arts, that in itself is structurally racist because colonial art was imported here through colonization. The fact that we don’t have any Black, Indigenous, or POC (BIPOC) dance companies is a reflection of the structural inequality that is a result of the ongoing nature of colonization. As Aboriginal people, we are the world’s longest living surviving culture, but we’re not funded to the same degree that the European culture is funded in Australia. I have often said I’m at war with the Australian arts and culture sector because of that reason.
In our country, the funding of the ecology and programming decisions of the industry do not prioritize First Nation arts and cultural stories collectively as a whole. Of course, there are individuals and certain festivals and organizations that are attempting to reposition First Nations as the heart of their programming, as it should be. But the downfall of individuals with a really strong philosophy of First People’s first is that once they leave their position, that philosophy often leaves that organization as well. It can be two steps forward and three steps back. Furthermore, the labor involved in transforming a colonial institution whether it be a major festival, performing arts center or a major company with significant funding, is often beholden of First Nations peoples who are driving that change from within and it creates a very unsustainable and temporary change. It burns out our Indigenous leaders.
It’s one thing to educate yourself on an individual level, but if you’re looking at your organization and you’ve got no Indigenous people on your board or in senior positions like curatorial or programming positions, no Indigenous people on staff or in marketing or front of house positions then your organization is really upholding white supremacy which is what founded colonization in Australia. That’s why I say I’m at war with the arts and culture sector because it’s perpetuating the colonial white supremacist narrative just through the act of being without having the structural change that reflects the society we live in and it’s not just a First Nation issue. We have a hugely diverse population in Australia and that is absolutely not reflected in the arts at all.
When we call for anti-racist structures, we’re also calling for organizations to have BIPOC board members and staff. How many conversations have you been part of where performing arts centers talk about how performing arts touring is broken? People want deeper and longer lasting engagement. That is how First Nations people work. Ironically, the application of our protocols would solve their broken touring programs. I think it’s interesting that this pandemic focuses on local programing because it will potentially hash out some of these issues. If Australian organizations can’t bring over an international superstar to create new work or program then maybe they will be forced to look at the place where they are located and recognize the unceded Aboriginal land, the Traditional owners of that Country, get to know the elders, get to know the community and do the work locally instead of sidestepping around it?
My challenge to companies and presenters alike is that BIPOC artists already exist wherever you’re based. We already have relationships with communities. Our kinship systems are significant. These artists are already there. Some senior Indigenous artists have been practicing their entire lives in a parallel universe that you haven’t engaged with. My challenge is for companies to look at what is already in the local community. Also, an important point to make is that the model of a white artistic director being at the top of the hierarchy and picking what they want in their venue is broken. Black Lives Matter calls for a flattening of those structures. We’re starting to see collective curatorial roles happening within organizations which I think is an important response and critical component of BIPOC self-determination in the arts. We’re the authors of our own stories, the philosophy of BIPOC being the programmer or curator is critical to that too, so I think what we’ll see a very significant shift in the next decade to decentralized curatorial models where the application of self-determination sits also in the curatorial and programming decision making. We don’t want to be programmed by white people who want to alter our context. We want to be the authors of our own context. We want to program our own communities so I think my challenge to organizations, festivals, presenters, companies, and artistic directors is to step aside and create a process where BIPOC can be the authors of our own context in the curatorial and programming decisions, not only in the making of their work, but also in the presenting of the work.
If an organization wanted to welcome a First Nation artist, how would you recommend that it go about doing that?
There are so many different ways that that could be achieved. There are heaps of organizations that are doing that really well in Australia. I think that shared leadership is a provocation for what 2020 and beyond looks like. If we are calling for self-determination across decision making, it does invoke shared leadership and stepping aside, and if we also think about this new normal of domestic or local focused programming, and anti-racism uprisings, all of this says to me that there will be much more of an emphasis on BIPOC programming and work. All of those environmental factors equal a shift in what we define as good art as well as what is being invested into it.
The challenge really is for people in positions of power to figure out ethically how they do that, and it has to be tailor made in every circumstance. You might have a situation where a collaboration requires a First Nations team from the director through to the producers and you might have another scenario where a co-artistic director or a co-curator is brought on, but what’s really important here is that companies don’t exploit this because if they just bring on (and this has happened in the past) an Indigenous consultant, they often play the role (unwillingly) of director, the dramaturg, the marketer, the writer, the choreographer, the copyrighter, etc. They’re not being paid for those roles and they’re not being recognized for their hard work. It’s way too much for one person. I do know that the answer is not to have an Indigenous themed production by one Indigenous consultant.
What we’re calling for in terms of advocacy for the recovery of the arts sector is not to recover, because we don’t want to recover to the status quo, we don’t even have a position to recover. There are no funded multi-year, small to medium BIPOC dance companies. The large majority of our performing arts sector does not get to make work of the scale and size with the investment required for it to be presented and toured nationally and internationally. It’s not an equal playing field. We don’t want to recover to that. We’re calling for a refuturing and in our refuturing, we’re asking the funding agencies to invest in building and embedding a sustainable First Nations sector and invest significantly into the development of infrastructure and independent artists who are hit the hardest at the moment. I know that a lot of independent artists are on struggle street, but the layers of Indigenous disadvantage and inequality often result in another level of disadvantage faced by Indigenous artists, and we have got independent artists who could become companies in a heartbeat, with the right investment. What we’re saying is invest in their work, invest in their productions, invest in the ones that want to become companies, invest in more Indigenous producers, invest in more Indigenous curators, and let’s tackle the next decade with a sense of equity and fairness.
There’s one thing that I need to say, but I don’t know if it is relevant to the article.
I’ve been attending ISPA for quite some time, since 2015, and my experience of ISPA when I first started attending was actually disempowering. When people would ask me what I do and I told them I worked in Indigenous dance supporting Indigenous dance companies and independent artists from Australia, I either got one of two reactions. Example one is someone who thought that Indigenous dance was an anthropological recreation of the past, obsessed with the exotic and the fetishization of the other. The second example is people just didn’t really care and they didn’t want to know about contemporary Indigenous dance.
For ISPA members, understanding and acknowledging our context of contemporary Indigenous performance is actually how to begin a conversation with us. If you are rendering Indigenous dance in Australia as either new or exotic, boring or not good enough then already there’s no space for conversation, exchange, dialogue or engagement. First Nation performance all around the world is contemporary, it's exciting, the narratives are powerful, and a timely reflection of the unresolved nature of colonization. The time is now, around the world, to have these conversations. My challenge to the ISPA membership is to do the research, learn, understand the context, and don’t be dismissive.
Have you noticed a change at all?
I definitely have and I think that David Baile and a few people on the ISPA board have really good will and intention to change, but the change isn’t fast enough. There’s a tendency for organizations to uphold or uplift Indigenous people from all around the world before they engage with their local community and that presents challenges to us because as part of our protocol, whosever land we’re on - those Indigenous people have the right to talk first, be prioritized and put forward before any other Indigenous person from another part of the world. If Australian Indigenous artists are being presented in New York, but Native Americans who live and come from New York are not being presented, that can be problematic. ISPA is based in New York and in over five years of attending, there have not been enough local Indigenous people present. This is a problem for me and maybe other Indigenous attendees because, as I understand it, the cultural authority to speak comes from the people of the land on which we are gathering. My challenge for ISPA is to create space to center and uplift their Native American community, to recruit, engage, and develop access strategies for Native American membership. Feature them in keynotes and performances, allow us to witness artists who are from the land on which ISPA is located.
Representation of Indigenous people in performing arts markets has been invested in and strategically approached for over a decade in Australia, so is it time for the U.S. to strategically invest in the redress of Native American engagement and prioritization? Not just at ISPA but across the whole arts sector? In Australia, Black lives matter means Indigenous lives matter,. The BIPOC organizations in the arts start from the position of First People’s first. They acknowledge they are guests on our land, then they advocate for their own communities. Now is the time to agitate, Black Lives Matter.