There’s never a dull moment when chatting with Waangenga Blanco and Tara Gower. Both are dancers with Bangarra Dance Theatre, Australia’s acclaimed Indigenous performing arts company. They are also partners, on and offstage, and the easy chitchat and light-hearted ribbing means they make for very entertaining company, even if you’re never quite sure whether they’re going to descend into fisticuffs or throw themselves hungrily into one another’s arms.
Blanco and Gower have been together around a year, although it feels like a lifetime. There’s nowhere to hide when you dance together five or six days a week, baring your soul for the audience.
Blanco joined Bangarra in 2005 and Gower the following year. Since then, they’ve toured to London, Paris, New York, Mongolia, Vietnam and right around metropolitan and regional Australia, including Broome where Gower grew up. But they met years earlier, when Blanco auditioned for the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association Dance College (NAISDA), where Gower was already dancing.
Was it love at first sight? “No way!” says Blanco. “Tara was always one of the boys, I always thought she was a bit rough.”
Gower chimes in: “No, no, I always thought Waangenga was a bit of a player. And I had this thing where I used to think everyone was gay, coming from a small town then meeting all these amazing gay dancers. So I treated everyone like brothers and sisters.”
It wasn’t until six years after they’d joined Bangarra, when both had graduated from NAISDA – Gower also earning an additional dance degree from the West Australian Academy for the Performing Arts – that they finally got together. The pair was treated to a rare moment away from the troupe when they travelled to Broome with artistic director Stephen Page to audition local talent as extras for the film Bran Nue Dae, which Page choreographed. Still friends at that point, Blanco appreciated meeting Gower’s family and being on her country.
When their relationship eventually blossomed while on tour in Whyalla, they decided to keep it to themselves as they navigated those early, complicated days within the family environment of the company. “It’s such a tight-knit group, we were working out our dynamic and emotional stability within that,” Gower says. They still find it highly amusing that their fellow dancers didn’t twig to the situation until they held hands in public. “It’s pretty funny considering it’s an indigenous company – you can’t hide anything, it’s like a small town. Everyone knows everything, we call it the blackvine,” laughs Gower.
There is already a great depth to their relationship, given how long they’ve known each other, Blanco says. “There was none of that weird nervousness, no bullshit. We know everything.” The pair has a shared language, even finishing each other’s sentences, with Gower adding “that thing of knowing each other and each other’s history makes the friendship more solid”. Blanco would like to think their relationship enhances the sense of family the company prides itself on. “People like hanging out with us because we provide a stable platform, they can share their feelings with us.”
Unlike a dance company such as the 70-strong Australian Ballet, whose dancers could go days barely seeing each other depending on their rehearsal schedule, the 14 dancers in Bangarra often spend every minute together taking class, rehearsing and performing.
However, this was not the case in the lead-up to their latest production Blak, a double bill choreographed by Page and dancer-choreographer Daniel Riley McKinley to music by Paul Mac and David Page, which explores important traditional indigenous rites of passage in a contemporary context. As preparation for the production, the company toured to Northeast Arnhem Land to spend time with their cultural consultants. Out of respect for these communities, many of whom observe traditional social mores, Gower and Blanco were rarely together and refrained from expressing physical affection. Two out of the three works in Blak separate the company down gender lines. “We missed hanging out with the girls, but we get more done when we’re away from the women. I liked it, I enjoyed the space,” Blanco says, with Gower adding: “It was good to get out the word count with the women!”
The couple is happy to be back in Sydney were they live (in Gordon’s Bay, nestled among Sydney’s eastern beaches) and just as we finish our interview I ask if there’s anything they’d like to add. “I would never have ridden from Gordon’s Bay to work [Walsh Bay] if it hadn’t been for Waangenga,” Gower says solemnly, while Blanco volunteers: “I would never have swum Gordon’s Bay if it wasn’t for Tara. I imagine the wildest and scariest creatures in there…”
True partners in life and love.
Bangarra Dance Theatre performs Blak at the Sydney Opera House from June 7 to 22.