by Jessica Rosenberg
Despite the celebrity glamour of performing at Justin Timberlake’s birthday bash at the Sydney Opera House in 2012, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance group Descendance remains focused on it primary goal – to introduce the world to Indigenous culture and history .
Company director Jose Calarco says the most memorable moment for the group was its 2007 tour through Africa and Eastern Europe. “All over the world, no matter the audience, the reaction was the same – a universal acceptance of what we do with language no barrier.”
The group of 30 performers includes members of various mainland Indigenous groups, and representatives of the Torres Strait Islands. While all the songs, dances and content originate from Cape York, the company is committed to diversity. Changing its name from Ngaru to Descendance in 2000 to cover artists from diverse areas, Descendance holds the motto One people, fighting a common cause.
Jose Calarco is one of the only non-Indigenous members of the group, but insists “I am part of their culture now. I’ve been a brother for over 15 years.”
The group operates as a family. Jose says, “Descendance is like a corroboree. It’s a family. It’s not a job at all. Every job is a chance to get together, enjoy each other’s company and promote the culture. The money is secondary.”
With performers from the original performance group now parents themselves, Jose says they have the next generation of Descendance dancers.
“Everyone involved has family involved,” says performer Beatrice Sailor, who has been with the group for more than 12 years. She was initially brought in to the fold through her uncle’s involvement and she now has five small children under nine and they are already performing.
With permission from the group’s Elder Imelda Willis, who passed away in 1999, Beatrice has been preparing the next generation. “They are the future. It’s important to keep the culture going from generation to generation. I’m passing it down now so they can pass it down and keep it strong.”
According to Jose Calarco, every performance is a political statement. “We’re not angry politically; we tell our audience the issues.”
Whilst the group is a contemporary one, tradition remains central. “A lot of Aboriginal history is integrated into the performance,” Jose says.
The group works hard to share the practice of story-telling through dance, especially culture that has been lost along the way, Beatrice says. With a focus on oral traditions, dance has become a performance platform for sharing history.
“I love that we take the culture all over the world and share it. Other people around the world didn’t even know Aboriginal people still exist in Australia,” she says.
This contemporary form of sharing stories continues to attract attention. Alongside Indigenous performing arts organisations such as Bangarra and dance college NAISDA, Descendance reminds its audience that the blend of contemporary and traditional can introduce Indigenous culture to a new generation.
Rita Pryce, Torres Strait Islander performer from the Kulkalgal people, commented that over the past 40 years, Torres Strait Islanders, especially the Elders, have understood that contemporary dance and traditional dance can represent the people. It is, she said, a huge step forward.
However, it is not always an easy road to travel, according to Jose Calarco. “We walk in to a function as one mob, and nearly all the time we’re treated with dignity and respect. But every now and then, we get a reminder,” he says, recalling how one of the group who asked for a drink after a performance, was dismissed with “No beer”.
Jose says Australia still has a way to go. “We are all as gentle as lambs,” he says, “but some people can get scared by the history and the notion that people drink and start fights.”
He says the performers don’t want to engage with that stereotype and so they always arrive early to performances and have a no-drinking rule.
“In the last 15 years, we’ve done just about every job possible,” Jose says, and mentions performances for Mel Gibson and Nicole Kidman in Hollywood, Australian Government-funded tours for international diplomats, shows in prisons and, as well, in Aboriginal communities.
But despite the celebrity performances and global recognition, Descendance remains committed to its goal – to educate Australia and the world about the history of Indigenous Australia and to continue to use dance to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture remains strong in future generations.