Aulu Tjibulangan dancing from Taiwan to Darwin: Insights on Indigenous identity through movement

— by Rebecca Renshaw

Aulu Tjibulangan's Farewell Performance to Darwin, East Point Reserve. Photographer: Paz Tassone

Aulu Tjibulangan, Paiwanese dancer and choreographer with Aulu’s interpreter, Chris Chang, caught up with Jocelyn Tribe, project coordinator of the 2019 Taiwan-Australia Indigenous Artists in Residence Program. They spoke about what it was like for Aulu growing up as an Indigenous person in modern day Taiwan and how these experiences influenced his artistic career. Aulu also reflected upon the time he spent in Darwin and the Top End.

How much of a role did language, dance and culture play for you growing up as an Indigenous person in Taiwan?

Growing up in a Paiwan tribe, traditional culture was all around Aulu.

Being raised in this kind of environment meant [language, dance and culture] condensed in my mind, accumulating in my blood. I didn’t seek out my Indigenous culture, it was all around me and influenced me naturally.

Can you talk a little about how this has influenced your artistic practice and career?

Unlike other Taiwanese Indigenous peoples who have started to follow religions such as Christianity, Aulu’s family continue to believe and adhere to their traditional religion.

My family follow the old ways and speak their traditional tribe language in the home. This is special to me, as it means I come from a family who not only believe in their traditional religion and way of life in their tribe, they still hold onto their customs and beliefs.

Growing up, culture and language was a way of life; we spoke our language at home. My grandfather would take me to the mountains and teach me how to hunt. My grandmother taught me how to get water from the spring or in the mountain. I was also taught how to do farming in a traditional way and that for life we must respect mother nature.

When Aulu was older he was sent “to the big city” to be educated by “modern society”, this influenced Aulu in a different way and provided him with new ideas and ways to express himself.

This new source I put into my artwork and combined with my original energy that was inside my body and makes up my blood [lines].

This structural makeup of the traditional which is at the core of Aulu’s family, along with living in contemporary Taiwan, has given Aulu the confidence to manifest elements and symbols into his artistic practice.

Every movement, everything I do is [my] Indigenous culture itself.

Can you expand upon how the modern contemporary world and the training you have received has informed the way you expresses yourself artistically?

From the age of 10 Aulu has attended professional dance schools in Taiwan being trained in ballet and contemporary dance. During his second year of university Aulu said

I never thought about the bigger questions “Who am I? What is my specialty? What makes me unique?” until that second year.

Up until then, Aulu had only ever thought about becoming a professional dancer, absorbing and learning skills. The turning point was when he joined an Indigenous dance company called Bulareyaung. All the dancers were Indigenous.

This experience impacted upon me and I started questioning myself “Who am I? What can I do? How can I be more unique?”

This led to Aulu thinking about his Indigenous Paiwan name and his Chinese name, which until this moment he had felt more comfortable using. Dancing with Bulareyaung gave him the courage to be more accepting of himself as an Indigenous person in Taiwan and was no longer embarrassed when people called him by his Indigenous name.

I started to find my identity. The way I looked at myself became more clear. I started to feel more proud.

During this period, Aulu started to realize how lucky he was to grow up in a traditional Indigenous family with their core belief centring around culture. Meanwhile, he also accepted his education from modern society; gradually becoming more and more confident, believing that

The art of dancing does not necessarily have to be beautiful. It’s about honesty, to believe in yourself. By combining what I believe and my contemporary dance together I can create something different, and that this creation happens in a very natural way, subconsciously.

Talk us through your idea of “environmental theatre” and how being in a new environment has influenced the way you express yourself through dance.

Aulu has always created environmental theatre [site-specific] and expressed himself through dance, even as a young child growing up and spending time with his grandparents in the mountains he explored movement. For Aulu, the main idea of environmental theatre is not to be restrictive. He created an environmental theatre performance piece during his 6-week residency in Darwin. The work centred around the Sun and drew upon his experiences whilst being in the Northern Territory, the freedom of outdoor life and experiencing nature. By not restricting himself to rehearsing and producing new work in a studio, Aulu was able to learn about Indigenous culture and dance. What resonated the most with him was the respect for Mother Nature.

The peaceful relationship with Mother Nature is important in my creation, and the Sun represents this, as human life follows the pattern of the Sun.

Tell us about the connections you’ve made during your residency.

Some of the most special memories during Aulu’s time in Darwin and the Northern Territory has been teaching dance in Indigenous communities and in Darwin.

I taught using the movement of body as language, where a part of the body can write your name or write a passage or sentence. During this class, everyone believed in me, followed my lead and therefore had a deep trust. The students learnt what I wanted to teach, which is natural movements through the honesty of their own body. I sent the message and the students caught that message, everyone can be the master of their own body [through movement and dance]. Some students were initially quite shy but they became confident [in the end]. This gave me a great sense of achievement.

Aulu visited a remote Indigenous community and discovered people there rarely experienced contemporary dance. Aulu shared Taiwanese Indigenous dance and music with the students and then did a small performance. During this process, the group started to understand Aulu and found something new in the way they were able to express their bodies through dance.

Sharing my own culture and being accepted is the strongest and best memory I have felt during this trip [residency].

Joining Rachael Wallis at Yirrkala School for some workshops Aulu met a young child who had been rather shy in participating. Following the class, the child came up to Aulu and said “Oh my God, you are so amazing. I never ever saw something like this before.” At this moment Aulu realised “I really did it … I really brought something here and I gave it to them.”

I felt so happy, so grateful that I had really achieved something. Later on, after the performance ended, all of them [children] came and hugged me. They were so excited. This reminded me as humans we are all connected to each other. I really brought something to this place [Yirrkala] and maybe I can make some change by giving people something of myself. Yeah, that is a very, very special memory for me.

Are there any possible collaborations on the horizon with the people you have met during your residency?

I would like to come back because during this period [residency], I have been learning and absorbing a lot of knowledge. I already have some ideas; I would like to keep developing the movement of body to express language. I would like to create a work with the dancers or students here and develop a work in collaboration with Gary Lang and Putu. As professional artists we could choreograph and create something that is different, unique.

Being a well-trained contemporary dancer Aulu would like to come back to Darwin and perform in a theatre where he can show audiences his art form [on a different platform]. It would also be wonderful to have another opportunity to share his culture and experiences through dance to inspire more people in the Northern Territory.


Note: This Behind the Scenes interview has been translated from Mandarin into English and audio transcribed. Some tenses and words have been changed for readability.

The Taiwan-Australia Indigenous Artist in Residence program is a collaboration between Artback NT and the Indigenous Peoples Cultural Development Centre Taiwan, generously supported by the Northern Territory Government, Taiwan’s Council of Indigenous Peoples and the Australian Office in Taipei.