Dancer Daniel Riley doesn’t try to downplay the sheer terror he felt the first time he “crossed over” to choreography.

It was 2007 and he was on tour in Canberra dancing with Bangarra Dance Theatre when he visited Sights Unseen, an exhibition of photographs by acclaimed Indigenous artist Michael Riley at the National Gallery of Australia.

His reaction to the arresting images of clouds, floating feathers and bibles was immediate, and movement-based. “I thought it would make a beautiful choreographic work, so I talked to artistic director Stephen Page and he said to keep thinking about it,” Riley says. Two years later Page told him he would like Riley to go ahead and create a work to premiere as a double bill alongside Artefact by Bangarra’s resident choreographer, Frances Rings.

“It was really terrifying. I was 24, the youngest male to contribute repertoire to the company. I’d created short works at university, but this was my first mainstream major performing-arts company work,” the 29 year old says. Not only that, but the work would premiere at the Sydney Opera House. “The challenge was how to get it out of my mind, through physicality, onto the dancers.”

Working closely with his fellow Bangarra dancers to create Riley, he was relieved to see the show become a huge success critically and artistically, paying tribute to the magnificent artworks by the late Michael Riley.

On a personal note, Riley discovered he was related to the late, great Michael Riley, a second cousin. This paved the way for a journey of self-discovery that only made his debut as a choreographer more rewarding.

Five years later and Riley is preparing another choreographic first: creating a work exclusively for the female dancers of Sydney Dance Company. SDC artistic director Rafael Bonachela invited him to take part in New Breed, the dance company’s showcase for emerging choreographers. A three-year program, New Breed was a resounding success when it debuted last year at Carriageworks.

Creating Reign with the eight SDC dancers for New Breed has been a far less nerve-wracking process for Riley than his Bangarra choreographic debut, but it has had its own challenges. “I’d always really admired SDC for its technical ability, but I don’t create technical work, so I was really [worried] about whether I should push myself to create a technical work, or do what I do and see how that looked on a technical frame. So that’s what I did,” he says.

Key to his success seems to be his collaborative nature. “It’s nowhere near completely choreographed by me,” Riley says. “The dancers were really hungry and so open to new ideas, at times I’d be completely stuck so they’d suggest something. That inclusion is really nice.”

After dancing with Bangarra for seven years, Riley was exhausted, physically and mentally and requested a year off. He and wife Chrissy moved to Europe, where he had an opportunity to choreograph for two very different groups of dancers: the UK’s Third Row Dance Company, a semi-professional student-led company; and Louisville Ballet run by former Bangarra rehearsal director and Australian Ballet principal dancer, Robert Curran.

“I went to Louisville for two weeks to develop ideas for a work and it was the hardest week of developing I’d ever had. I’d never worked with ballet dancers before and these were pure ballet dancers, they’d never seen the likes of contemporary work before,” Riley says. Nevertheless both he and the dancers grew from the experience and Sacred Shifts premiered in March this year.

Now that he has completed his New Breed commission, Riley will give his choreographic muscles a rest and is returning to dance with Bangarra full time from September. “I’ve done four commissions in nine months. I’m a bit commissioned out,” he says. “I’m looking forward to dancing with my family again. But some of the best work I’ve seen has been by choreographers who are still dancing. They have an idea of physicality, bodies in space. I still want to do both, I feel so much more creative when I’m dancing [so] maybe eventually I will exclusively choreograph.”

New Breed, featuring new works by Daniel Riley, Kristina Chan and Sydney Dance Company dancers Bernhard Knauer and Fiona Jopp runs December 8–12 at Carriageworks.