Cultural connections in Taiwan… Rachael Wallis reflects on her residency in Rinari

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Rachael Wallis participates in a traditional wedding ceremony in Rinari, photo by Remix Image Studio, Taiwan.

In June – July 2018 Nhulunbuy dancer and choreographer Rachael Wallis journeyed to Rinari, Taiwan to undertake a six-week residency as part of our Indigenous exchange program with the Indigenous Peoples Cultural Development Centre in Taiwan. Here she speaks to our Communications Manager Kate Rendell about sharing food, dance and culture with Indigenous artists across Taiwan and the things she learnt along the way…

What were your first impressions arriving in Rinari?

Well Grace comes running up at the train station with waving arms. At first I thought it was someone else’s family member, you know, she was so excited – and then she’s like ‘Rachael’ and then she comes up and hugged us. Then we met Etan, Yuling and Ali and just went and had lunch at a little noodle restaurant – got the noodle taste!

Driving up to Rinari was really amazing because you have to drive up the side of the mountain and we’re just looking… big eyed – ‘wow is this where we are going’? In Rinari you are kind of on a plateau on top of a mountain – you drive up one side and there’s the village but then you look into the distance and there’s massive mountains all around. In the village you can see that all the locals have vegetable gardens growing – they all have plots for their own gardens. It’s really slow paced.

That’s surprising because I think of Taiwan as an incredibly dense place but Rinari has obviously retained a slow pace?

Yeah, like a little mountain paradise.

Rinari is renowned for great artists and everyone said that to me – across the country different people would say to me oh wow Rinari you have a lot of talented artists there.

The next morning after we arrived we went to the first art exhibition and we had no idea we were going to be VIP’s there – we just thought we’re going to an art exhibition – we didn’t know it was an official opening of an exhibition of Paiwan artists. That’s when the connections began… I’ve never met so many visual artists in my life. So it really made me want to work more with people like that – you know for backdrops, or props, or design. They’re the artists that I need to work alongside. You know those artists back home, ladies who are weaving, people who are painting and telling the songlines. They’re things that I can now dance about – this experience really awakened that in me. It all connects! I’ve always kept it separate. Like ‘I’m a dancer’ ‘you’re are weaver’ ‘you’re a painter’, ‘you’re this or that’, but actually we’re all doing cultural work and we’re all telling stories and bringing our ancestors into our works.

That’s interesting because Artist Residencies are often associated with visual arts and people usually go to a studio to have studio time…

Yeah and they work individually.

Whereas it seems this program was the opposite with collaboration and breaking down of disciplinary barriers. In terms of Indigenous cultural connections what did you observe or learn in Rinari?

You know, Taiwan reminds me a bit of the southern part of Australia where things were lost and people are trying to find it again. They’re doing a lot of research and they’re going back to the Elders who are left, and who are perhaps even scared to tell their stories cause of all the torment and pain they went through in their younger years of being an Indigenous person.

By saying that – there were some artists like Sang Mei-Chuan, who were born in their villages, raised with their people, fully immersed in their culture from day dot since they were born. So you know it’s a natural part of them to speak and sing their language or do their art work. But people like Labaka Taru and myself that are born and raised in the cities, perhaps displaced from family, because of what has gone on in history, we have that longing – we share the same pride, same love of culture and want to go back to country and to the elders and to learn that. So some people are just doing what they’ve done all along because it is part of their everyday life and then there’s other people like Labaka and myself that have been fortunate enough with our skills that we’ve developed in the cities – like him with music and me with dance – we get to come back and connect with community and culture – we are so determined to keep up the culture and to share it and in many ways to preserve it and survive it. Because many parts of it were lost from some of us.

Some people that I barely knew who I would tell my story to, and say that I’m part of the stolen generation would just cry and hold me. And that was before they even really knew me. Cause they’re going, ‘what? They took you from your mother?’. They can’t imagine that. They had massacres and other things but they didn’t go through children being separated from parents. So that really hit them hard.

With your collaborations, where did you perform?

Well, there were three main performances. The first one was in Taipei for the NAIDOC celebrations and the showing of Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country. That was where I first met everybody else from the Australia Office.

And then the second main performance was the Naluwan Theatre at the Indigenous Peoples Culture Park. They usually have their own cultural company performing every day but they put us in the morning performance, myself, Sang Mei-Chuan and Labaka Taru.

That was when I first collaborated with Labaka and he was the first artist that I worked with in Taiwan. He composed a piece of music in his own traditional style and I choreographed a piece to his composed music which I’m going to give to my girls when I get home and they’re doing it in their end of year concert.

Then we collaborated with Mei-Chuan. So we had a Paiwan singer, a Truku musician and myself, an Australian Aboriginal dancer. And I think that went down really well.  Mei-Chuan started calling – it was so coincidental because the calls she made sounded like part of a songline that comes from home, when the men are first coming out of the bushes at certain ceremonies. So I decided to use that as my entrance queue. When I entered the stage I was painted up and people said to me ‘you look like a spirit coming out’, that’s because the movement I was doing was mokuy – a spirit woman. This was so powerful to me – because the story was recognised with no explanation.

And what was the final major performance?

It was my presentation that we always knew about. And originally I just thought, yeah I’ll show some of my videos and talk a little bit! Oh man! Okay, there was quite a bit of me re-vamping what I was going to do. At first I thought I’m going to do something with Labaka because he had a piece he had already composed and I really loved it. Then he said let’s do something live, because he does his traditional xylophone, the drumming, and traditional flute and an instrument called the Lubu.

I also introduced to another beautiful Taiwanese dancer, Dresdres Kazangiljan, but she lived in Taipei, so she came to see me the Sunday before the performance and we exchanged some dances then. I taught her some of my traditional dances. She showed me some of her movements and then she went back to Taipei. From there she was sending some videos to me. So we somehow got bits and pieces of choreography through to each other. And then on her return we had one rehearsal together on the stage and she taught me the rest of the choreography. By coincidence we’d actually chosen the same Mei-Chuan song. So we we’re like well that’s meant to be!

So we had Mei-Chuan’s song and Labaka’s music. These were the performing artists that I had lived with and grown really close to in that time. It really blew people away that in such a short time we could connect and collaborate like this.

We also did a contemporary Paiwan dance about the millet, we had baskets and millet that we were dancing with. I was all painted up with ochre and Dresdres was in her traditional Paiwan clothes that her grandma made her. Labaka was in his traditional Truku.

It would have been so different if I had done it all myself. Like the visual artists, who did their own presentation and nothing crossed over or overlapped. It just so happens that with performing artists we all overlapped – we all came together at a certain time and worked all together. Because that’s what you get when you have song, music and dance. It would usually take at least three weeks to a month to rehearse something like what we did. I just can’t believe it.

Is that kind of freeing? Did it give you a sense of what’s possible? Or are you thinking ‘let’s never do that again’?

Oh no, I’d do it every day. It just fell into place. If I got stuck in movement, I just gave in, I just let something else take over – because when Indigenous people perform you’re not doing it for yourself and you’re not doing it alone. You’re never alone. At first performing in Taiwan felt really weird for me, doing the traditional moves all by myself because you never really do ceremonial dance solo. So I had to call on ancestors so I could be surrounded by family and that they were there with me – so it felt like home.

Same for Dresdres, she was dancing for her grandma, with her grandma. And all her movements were inspired from growing up in the village, working the mill and sewing her clothes with her grandmother. All her movements come from that.

How special to make those connections. To be sharing that together…

Yeah some of the things that Dresdres writes to us now are like, ‘thank you mum I will always take care of culture’, or that’s how it translates. Yeah, we boosted each other. It’s a big boost.

I think Dresdres has got more confidence to share her dance with more people. She knows what she can do. She can hold her own on a stage with very important art people there from her country. She looked so nervous because this was one of her first times performing to such an important audience. And there was one dance that was really hard for her because it’s opposite to the way she normally moves. So I said I’d hold her hand for her while she moves. And then she said ‘can you please hold my hand the whole time you do that?’ And we did, I held her really close. I was pulsing her into the movement and that just gave great comfort to her.

How powerful…

Yes, imagine how beautiful that would have looked. Two traditional women, not only dancing together but holding each other and dancing. The connection is so strong. Cause I felt it, I can’t imagine how it would have looked and felt from the audience. But if they got anything of what we got from it…

Is there anything final you’d like to say in terms of what this residency has meant for you and where you might go next?

This residency has made me think about letting go, creating movement and allowing things come. To be carried by it. That experience of having to put together my final performance in such a short time really proved to me that there is another force, there is something else, that when you dance traditionally or when you let your spirit dance then it can. At times I don’t have to think. It just happens. And I can’t explain. It’s not just about learning the movements and doing the maths. Just that there’s this energy and there’s other things that get you there.

This experience has definitely made me think that I really give so much to other people and I love doing that, and it’s what I’ve always done – but it’s not selfish to take time out and create. That’s when I’m going to get my quality work done. So that’s why I need to go and sit on country with family and just chill. Not have time limits and not have the mainstream life in me. Some days you just need to sit on country I think. So that’s what we’re going to do. Yeah our family has changed, and what we value in our family has changed.

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. The program presents a unique opportunity for cultural exchange between First Nations artists.