For Bangarra Dance Theatre dancer-choreographer Jasmin Sheppard, Dark Emu is more than the next event on the calendar. She hopes it will help mark a new entry point in the history of Australian civilisation – in particular with respect to its Indigenous history.

Touring nationally this June, Dark Emu is adapted from Bruce Pascoe’s 2014 book of the same name. In it Pascoe debunks the most persistent of colonial myths: that Indigenous Australians were hunter-gatherer nomads who moved across the land. Using records written by European invaders and recently uncovered archaeological evidence, Pascoe describes a new vision of Aboriginal people before colonisation: skilled and deliberate farmers who cultivated crops, built infrastructure and lived in permanent stone houses.

“There’s a sense of awe and wonderment at the richness of our history,” says Sheppard. “I think it is going to be really beautiful to take the eyes on a visual feast in relation to the words. I hope it’s a way to educate people, that they go away and do their own research and read the book. Find out more about what’s really happened here. Blackfellas, whitefellas, immigrants – there’s no way to move forward and create unity or a proper community unless we know what’s happened.”

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Now in her twelfth year at the company, Sheppard has found a muse in Bangarra. Founded in 1989, the dance theatre company is an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisation, and has developed into one of Australia’s leading performing arts companies. The combination of which makes an ideal vehicle for telling Australian stories that remain largely untold.

“Most Australians have been fed lies about history and what really happened – about who Aboriginal people were, and how our communities were,” says Sheppard, whose first major piece of choreography, Macq (2016), detailed the hidden history of Governor Lachlan Macquarie and his part in the 1816 massacre of Dharawal men, women and children at Appin, NSW. “Racism is based on ignorance,” she says. “So I’m passionate about getting rid of that ignorance.”

Revisiting history
For Sheppard, Pascoe’s book was a revelation – even as someone with strong roots in the Tagalaka and Kurtijar peoples from Normanton and Croydon in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

“Reading the book really made me feel there has been so much taken away from us,” she says. “I was learning and surprised. It’s so beautifully inspired by how rich, complicated and structured our farming techniques were, and our ways of making sure that food sources remained constant. It goes to show how whitewashed our history has been, even to the point of our food-sources and how we manage the land. It’s all tied to trying to stamp out Indigenous people’s presence here in Australia, and hide how civilised our communities were.”

Dancing the elements
Working with Dark Emu choreographer and Bangarra founder Stephen Page, Sheppard is just one of the team tasked with figuring out how to tell this story of history and science through the medium of dance.

“It’s proven really challenging for the choreographers,” says Sheppard. “But it’s really interesting to take something written mostly about botany and the land and then think about how a human responds to it. How do you physically embody something like burn-off or seed spreading? How do we put the human spirit back into the science? It’s about using your imagination. As a dancer, I like to take a lot of information and lead from the choreographer. But also the way I like to work is to delve right into a story for myself.”

Retracing roots
One way Sheppard has been doing that is connecting with people who still practice these elemental traditions. “We’re working on a piece now about controlled burnings and the way ash was used after burnings – [learning things like] the difference between hot burns and cool burns, the oils in the plants, working with the wind preparing the land,” she says. “I’ve been able to draw from stories from my countryman up in the gulf, Victor Stephenson. He’s reawakening traditional burning to revive land and revive culture, to connect people back to their roots. So that’s how I personalise it, put myself into the work and support the choreographers in their journey.”

Dark Emu tour dates:

Sydney Opera House, June 14 to July 14

Canberra Theatre Centre, July 26–28

State Theatre Centre of WA, August 2–5

QPAC August 24 to September 1

Arts Centre Melbourne September 6–15

Tickets available here.

Broadsheet is a proud media partner of the Bangarra Dance Theatre.