Dance may be a wordless artform, but as you watch dancer Daniel Mateo perform alongside his Bangarra Dance Theatre family, his movement speaks volumes. He is at the pointy end of rehearsals for the world premiere of Bangarra’s latest work Horizon, which opens at the Sydney Opera House on June 13, before Mateo and the 16-strong company embark on a national tour, travelling to Canberra, Brisbane and Melbourne.

He’s also an acclaimed slam poet. When Broadsheet caught up with Mateo, the 23-year-old was preparing to join a panel for a poetry slam as part of National Reconciliation Week, before facilitating an evening of poetry in Parramatta, Western Sydney.

Mateo is Gamilaroi on his mother’s side and Tongan on his father’s and grew up on Wiradjuri Country in Orange before moving to Newcastle to join Catapult Dance, and later NAISDA Dance College in 2019. Mateo has only been with Bangarra since 2021 but already has toured nationally with artistic director and choreographer Frances Rings’s 2023 production Yuldea, which explores her mother’s country.

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He cites as a highlight the chance to go back on Country in the Kimberley to learn firsthand from Elders the cultural protocols, stories and movement language behind the creation of SandSong, a 2021 work by Rings and former artistic director Stephen Page, inspired by the late stage and screen actress, dancer and cultural mentor Ningali Lawford-Wolf.

“Hearing the stories direct from their mouths was amazing,” says Mateo. “We get the ideas for the story from the choreographer but then to hear it from the Elders is reassuring, the approval from them to tell their story, making sure we’re telling it correctly. I feel proud that we’re doing it for them. He adds they got some firm instruction until they got the traditional movement right. “Oh yeah, we got drilled,” he laughs.

He and the dancers have been in completely new territory with Horizon, Bangarra’s first mainstage cross-cultural collaboration. It’s a double bill show. Esteemed Māori choreographer Moss Te Ururangi Patterson has joined Bangarra alumnus, choreographer and theatre director Deborah Brown to create The Light Inside which will be performed before Horizon, alongside the restaged work Kulka by former Bangarra dancer Sani Townson.

“Being Indigenous and from the Pacifika, seeing the two choreographers [Moss and Deborah] together I see in myself the similarities but also how different they are. It’s two different styles,” he says. “Moss definitely draws upon his traditional movements and we can all see when they perform the hakas how strong and powerful they are. And Deb has such a unique style, she leans more into the softness of her movement.”

Despite the differences, he says Patterson has welcomed them into Māori culture and movement, which has been both challenging and rewarding.

“There’s such a quietness to our culture, and shame is such a massive thing for Indigenous people. So when Moss came in with his beautiful power and strength we were all kind of, ‘Oh, can we do that?’ But it was good because he created the space for us to experience his language, his hakas and reassured us this is okay.”

Poetry, on the other hand, has provided Mateo with an outlet to express and share his own family’s stories. What began as a love of storytelling, such a crucial part of his cultural heritage, soon developed into poetry.

“It’s innate in us to tell stories – the passage of education, the passage of knowledge – so when I started to get into poetry I saw how this brought up in me things to express and explore. I fell in love with it.”

To date he’s taken part in the Australian Poetry Slam, National Youth Poetry Slam and was invited to judge the Bankstown Poetry Slam alongside fellow judges and poets Rob Waters, Eileen Chong and Sara M Saleh before 3000 people.

“There’s such a sense of community in the poetry scene, I really appreciate that.”

His own slam poetry has naturally evolved from sharing his family’s history to exploring more personal emotions.

“When I started it was about the history of Australia, then went into my experiences and family’s experiences – the triumph and trauma of my people. That led into the land, the holistic care it gives and how important it is for us to be able to reaffirm that. I used to hate love poems, but you get [older] and start to explore your feelings because that’s where it comes from. I began writing anything and everything so now I appreciate even love poems.”

Bangarra Dance Theatre presents Horizon, a double bill with Kulka and The Light Inside at the Sydney Opera House from Jun 11 to Jul 13. The show tours Canberra (Jul 18–20), Brisbane (Aug 7–17) and Melbourne (Aug 28–Sep 7).