Jasmin Sheppard is a Tagalaka woman, a dancer-choreographer who grew up in Melbourne in a proud Aboriginal family but one that lacked connection to its culture. Like her nana before her, Sheppard attended the local Christian church, but as a teenager she started to question what she was learning.
“I realised something wasn’t sitting right for me. It didn’t align with my cultural values, how I wanted to identify culturally and explore my heritage,” she tells Broadsheet. What she was hearing in church wasn’t answering some of her burning questions: “What is the relationship between First Nations people, our connection to country and religion?”
She began to do some digging and her research took her back to the 1800s and beyond, when the relationship between missionaries and Aboriginal communities often resulted in the loss of their precious land.
“When people were taken from their traditional homelands to the mission those traditional homelands were [often] taken over. What followed soon after was the White Australia policy where they weren’t allowed to return to those homelands,” she says. “I found a real discrepancy between the intent of the missionaries who came and the result of what happened – people losing their families and their culture.”
Sheppard recognises they are weighty issues but when Sydney Dance Company (SDC) artistic director Rafael Bonachela invited her to create a new work for the annual New Breed season, featuring productions by emerging and established choreographers, she knew she needed to explore those issues further through movement.
During lockdown she held two 90-minute zoom sessions with the SDC dancers, explaining the concept and her choreographic process, and was encouraged by the reaction.
“We had such great and rich conversations, the company was so generous in talking about it and pulling it apart,” she says. The result is the ironically titled Given Unto Thee, a 20-minute work created on six of the dancers that “explores religion and the use of religion by the power structures of colonisation to take land from Indigenous people through the missions”. It’s performed to a compilation of tracks from her regular collaborator, Wiradjuri composer Naretha Williams, who composed and performed the music on an organ in the Melbourne Town Hall.
It was during her years as a student at the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association that Sheppard began learning about other dancers’ cultures, inspiring her to learn more about her own.
“It stirred the fire within me to really know where my nana was from and get to know her community a lot more,” she says of her grandmother, who was taken from her homelands in Queensland to work on a cattle station and didn’t return. “[Our family is] the result of displacement and colonisation so it’s a long journey of reconnection and trying to find your way back to community and rebuilding those bridges that were broken.”
Since then, Sheppard has deepened her cultural knowledge. She spent 12 years with Bangarra Dance Theatre, during which she danced the lead role of young Eora woman Patyegarang, choreographed on her; and choreographed the Helpmann Award-winning 2017 work Macq about the 1816 Appin Massacre under NSW governor Lachlan Macquarie. She has since gone on to have original works performed by physical theatre company Legs on the Wall (No Remittance) and the full-length The Complication of Lyrebirds staged at Campbelltown Arts Centre and this year’s Sydney Festival.
She is at pains to point out Given Unto Thee is not about Black versus white, or coloniser versus colonised. Rather, she hopes it helps audiences understand this vexed issue a little better.
“In all my work my aim is to shed light on something from a different angle, so that people see things with a bit of critical thought. Hopefully it’s healing and educating and a way to bring people together.”
Sheppard’s work will be performed alongside world premieres from three other choreographers: SDC dancer Jacopo Grabar, Melbourne-based choreographer, dancer and performer Lilian Steiner and Sydney-based dancer-choreographer Rhiannon Newton.
The New Breed season represents SDC’s first return to the stage following Sydney’s lockdown, and all four works look to be incredibly diverse. For example, Steiner’s Springtime Again blends technology, movement and soundscapes to produce a psychedelic experience in which the dancers “compose” the sound live through motion-tracking sensors, all performed under UV light.
“It’s been such a treat working on New Breed,” says Sheppard. “The company is amazing, so hardworking and open and generous and the choreographers are a great group, all incredibly rich in what they’re doing, a really interesting mixed bag. It feels really fun and I hope it’s fun for the dancers, too. Something different.”
New Breed runs from November 25 to December 11 at Carriageworks. sydneydancecompany.com