Mr Stephen Page
About the speaker
Stephen Page was born in Brisbane and is a descendant of the Nunukul people and the Munaldjali clan of the Yugambeh Nation from South East Queensland.
Stephen Page is an internationally recognised choreographer and creative visionary and has made an outstanding contribution to Australian cultural life as the Artistic Director of the Bangarra Dance Theatre since 1991. He has built a strong reputation touring throughout Australia and the world, including New York, Washington, Paris, London and Germany. Memorable works include Ochres, Skin (‘Best New Australian Work’ and ‘Best Dance Work’, 2001 Helpmann Awards), Corroboree (“Best Choreography’, 2002 Helpmann Awards, Bush (‘Best Dance Work’, 2004 Helpmann Awards), Mathinna (‘Best Dance Work’ and ‘Best Choreography’, 2009 Helpmann Awards), and Fire - A Retrospective (‘Best Choreography’, 2010 Helpmann Awards).
Throughout his career, Stephen has been the primary mentor of Indigenous dance at an elite level in Australia, and in so doing, fostered a new generation of Indigenous dancers and choreographers. He has maintained a commitment to, and close contact with, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
In 1993 Stephen was honoured with a MO Award for Dance. He has worked as a choreographer with the Australian Ballet and in 1996 brought the Australian Ballet and Bangarra Dance Theatre together to perform his work Alchemy and the following year Rites. In 2003 Stephen was named the Individual Winner of the prestigious Sidney Myer Performing Arts Award and in 2010 was awarded the Services to Dance award at the Australian Dance Awards.
Stephen has directed music videos and his brother’s play, Page 8, which toured Australia and the United Kingdom. Stephen and Bangarra performed at the closing ceremony of the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games and at the 2000 Olympic Arts Festival.
Stephen’s talents were further recognised when he was chosen as Director of the 2004 Adelaide Festival. He undertook this demanding role whilst remaining Artistic Director of the Bangarra Dance Company.
He was awarded NSW Australian of the Year in 2008 in recognition of his efforts to bring cultures together through the performing arts and his commitment to developing young Indigenous storytellers by mentoring emerging artists.
Stephen made his directorial debut in 2012, directing the chapter Sand in the feature film The Turning and was Artistic Associate for the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Secret River. In 2013 he choreographed Blak with Daniel Riley, commissioned Dance Clan 3 by Bangarra’s women and accepted the Australian Arts in Asia Award. In 2014, to celebrate Bangarra’s 25th anniversary, Stephen choreographed Bangarra’s acclaimed work Patyegarang.
Stephen’s body of work and career accomplishments are consistent with the UTS aspiration for excellence in the professions and has a particular resonance with the university’s focus on creative practice and cultural economy. He has enriched the broader understanding of Indigenous culture within the Australian community, work that is consistent with the University’s promotion of social justice and Indigenous reconciliation.
It is a great honour for the University of Technology, Sydney to award Stephen Page an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Creative Arts (honoris causa) in recognition of his outstanding contribution to professional practice in the major performing arts and Australian cultural life.
First off I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we gather today, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation and pay respect to the elders past and present, in particular the present elders who are the caretaker of our knowledge and country.
Chancellor Professor Vicki Sara, Vice-Chancellor Professor Attila Brungs, Professor Jim Macnamara, Associate Deans, Academic Staff, distinguished guests Professor Michael McDaniel, Professor Larissa Behrendt, graduates family and friends.
My name is Stephen Page and I am the Artistic Director of Bangara Dance Theatre. When Professor Vicki Sara rang me to honour me this doctorate I was wonderfully overwhelmed and I really didn’t think I was worthy of this. It made me reflect about my life and “who I am as a man?” and “who am I as a leader?” and “who am I as a proud Indigenous artist and storyteller?” When this honour comes along you have to strongly reflect and you have to go back to where it all began, and for me my family was so instrumental. Professor Vicki Sara spoke about that today and family is a huge part of our culture, it gives you strength, it empowers you, and it sets up those values and principles in the early stages of your life. My father was a Munaldjali man, he’s a freshwater man from South West of Brisbane and my mother is a Nunukul woman, she’s a saltwater woman. They had 12 children, I have five brothers and six sisters – I’m the third youngest. We were brought up in suburbia Brisbane.
Unfortunately, my mum and dad came from generations where they were slightly forbidden to celebrate their identity. In that scenario language gets lost and you become shammed with who you are. They lived in a generation where they build quite tough skin in terms of surviving. My father had a myriad of jobs, laboring jobs – from electrical linesman to a timber cutter to a concreter. My mother worked out there in factories – biscuit factories, clothing factories. All my older sisters had to leave school quite young to help support the family. But it wasn’t always hard times. I was fortunate enough to go to a public primary school, I was fortunate to go to high school. A lot of our family gatherings were with cousins who came off country, came down Brisbane – were stories [telling] that we would hold back home. I knew straight away that I wanted to be in the Arts because my family were great storytellers – music, dance and song were always celebrated in my house.
It probably was when I got to high school that I was fortunate enough to learn music and get involved in the Arts and learn a little bit about dance. In Year 11, I challenged one of my history teachers, why we didn’t have Aboriginal History in class. For that reason I got sent to the Principal’s office and got suspended for a week. My mother said to me, I was one of the first kids to get through to Year 11 and hopefully through to Year 12, and she said that if I don’t find a job within a week I’d have to go back to school. I was so annoyed and frustrated by it – I was just being curious, I was wondering what is the situation with Aboriginal History within this institution, the school I was at. I know for most of my life, I was very curious. Beside the troublesome time that my mother and father had, we would go to the country and fish when I was little. I would constantly ask my father about his people and the positive stories about where language, what language was still able to remain to hold on to – what stories were passed down from traditional Elders. He always said I was the curious one. I suppose that stayed with me so when I was in year 11 and that happened, I was determined to rebel against that.
My cousin was working at the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island legal services of all places! I got a job as a trainee law clerk at the legal service and one of the Solicitors there wanted to see if I had any interest in going to University to learn law. One frame of my mind was in that direction. Within the legal service office, there was a huge poster about careers in dance for Indigenous students. It was an amazing image of a woman who was in this modern pose but yet this Aboriginal essence was coming out of her energy. I was totally amazed that there was a college that was set up to celebrate dance and dance stories. It wasn’t long before I put in an application and I went to Sydney - this was in the early 80’s - 82. This college was established, (the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Dance Theatre it’s now called NAISDA) it’s 40 years next year. I went to this college and the great thing about this college is that it was where Indigenous – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students would come to celebrate their culture through dance stories. The diversity of Indigenous Cultures, if you’ve got 1000 and more different languages it means you’ve got a myriad of diversity within the clans. From North, South, East, West of this nation. Being amongst the clan of all this diverse Indigenous energy and spirit made me think about my family and think about preserving culture, preserving knowledge. If it meant that my profession was going to be through dance and a caretaker of dance stories, about respecting those old dance stories – the traditional dance stories – maintaining that integrity and moving it through a contemporary expression then I knew basically then and there that that was what I wanted to do.
I spent 3 years at the college, and I got a certificate and diploma. I was fortunate, through one of my end of year performances, that Artistic Director Graeme Murphy (who was Director of Sydney Dance Company at the time) gave me the opportunity for a trainee contract with Sydney Dance Company. I uprooted myself from this great cultural, expressionist, dance institution to move into this non-Indigenous contemporary dance company. They had completely different values, completely different principles – everyone was in it for themselves. It was where I first felt a competitive energy, I suppose. I had lots of private coaching classes – I was learning classical, modern – I was really having strong withdrawals from those traditional influences. Once working in that non-Indigenous environment, it shaped me, having that foot in that contemporary world. As I said before, I had withdrawals from a lot of those traditional stories and those urban stories that inspired a good strong part of my interest. Through that college, even though you learned all your modern forms, it was those traditional Elders that - came from whether it was NE Arnhem Land or the Kimberley’s or the Central Desert or Regional NSW or through the Torres Strait – came and they taught us their traditional dance and stories.
You might think that dance is probably not a powerful medium but in traditional Indigenous culture – Art is a huge part of their life. Art is “What is the preserver of stories?” Art is the spirit of all your social behaviour as you move on in life. That traditional form of knowledge really inspired me to want to care-take and hang on to that knowledge. There’s this other foot that’s working in a contemporary company. I only lasted about two years in Sydney Dance Company. My radical, little activist hat must have come back on – because it was around the time in 1988 during the bi-centenary that I didn’t want to partake being in a non-Indigenous company. I actually wanted to go back to the college and create stories that empower who we are as people. I went back and became a teacher and a choreographer. I think that was around the time that the Institute of Technology became a University – around 1988.
The following year in 1989 Bangarra Dance Theatre was birthed. It was these graduates coming from the college that really had nowhere to go. There was a distinctive style of modern dance knowledge but also there’s these traditional dance knowledges. There was a wonderful crossover of the spirit of both. Unfortunately, it was a time where it was hard to get work out there in the mainstream. It was those graduates that created Bangarra Dance Theatre. Bangarra is a Wiradjuri word which means “to make fire”.
I went back to Sydney Dance Company – I got an offer to choreograph a work with Graeme Murphy. That was where it shaped the skills of crafting choreography came from. By 1991, I was Director of Bangarra Dance Theatre. We are celebrating 26 years this year and I’ve been with the company for 24 years of it. There are 28 major performing arts companies in this country, and it’s the only Indigenous performing arts company within those 28. What’s great about this company – its purpose is that it’s the only one of the 28 that draws on its heritage – its true heritage.
When you know that you have a responsibility in the performing arts to be the care taker, especially when traditional stories are awakened or living songs, traditional dance stories are entrusted into your company – it allows you to be the care takers of those stories and to filter that through a contemporary expression in the mainstream. That’s not an easy responsibility. There is no way I would be here 24 years later without the help and the strength of my family. I had two brothers that were very instrumental in the beginning, working with me. My brother, David, is the resident composer for the company. My younger brother Russell was the muse and a dancer of the company.
We drew other clans and families in from all over the country, that were instrumental in the beginning. Especially families from NE Arnhem Land – the Marika’s, the Yunupingu’s, the Munyarryun’s, the Warusam’s from the Torres Strait Island. My relationships with the Elders in the Central Desert, and throughout regional Australia – South Australia, New South Wales and Queensland – there is a lot of different diverse groups of Indigenous people who really were there to support my vision at the time. Over the years that has just grown.
The company has had about 120 dancers, who have professionally worked with the company. Today we have senior dancers who have retired, who have transitioned into being Directors and Coordinators of our Education program, Rekindling. We’ve been able to nurture at least seven choreographers within the company who have come from the company.
Last year we celebrated 25 years, we went back on country – nine-week tour back into those regional communities where those families over the years have given us their stories to be told nationally and internationally. It was a great celebration of going back into the communities, into real communities – laying down plywood floor on their basketball courts and performing their dances that they have passed onto us – and us giving them those stories back to them as a gift. We are still maintaining those relationships with those Elders from those times in the early 80s who now, the next generation really understand the legacy that has been built around them.
Just a couple of last stories I want to share before I finish. One of my proudest moments was directing the Indigenous segment of the Sydney Olympics. It might have been my fate that I was chosen because I had these connections with these wonderful families around the country. I was able to go to the Central Desert or the Pitjantjatjara women – we had about 380 women from Central Desert and 80% of them had never been to the city before. They asked how long they were going for, and I said “about 10 days”. One of them did say she might come back married! The beautiful thing about this was that 500 people from the Kimberley’s, NE Arnhem Land, different communities – 500 students from the Torres Strait communities and the great thing was that I was about to assemble 500 Koori kids from secondary schools throughout because we were on Eora nation. I had some challenges from a lot of communities within Sydney because one part of them wanted to boycott the Olympics and I totally understood that. It’s a perfect world stage to present your issues to the world. But I was a little bit concerned because we needed a presence within the stadium and a true spirit to awaken the ground/ceremony especially for the rest of the world. I decided to meet all the people at Redfern, Town Hall, Uncle Charlie Perkins, Isabella Co, and some really strong social activist people/leaders were there. They wanted to know the reason why I was participating and I did say, “Well why don’t you let me choreograph the boycott? Why don’t we do it in a creative way – get more impact on it and really show this frustration through a creative way? We’re a complex culture, why can’t we also have a presence inside this stadium?” I think their energies calmed down then and they understood the purpose of using art as a medicine and our culture is the oldest in the world - to welcome the world and to give a gift to the Eora Nation people and to perform this ceremony. This really shifted people’s consciousness about the spirit of this country.
I was going to tell another story but I am going to try and finish up quite quickly and on that note, I just wanted to say that Indigenous storytelling and Art, as I said before, is a huge medicine – and it’s knowledge. I might not have ever gone to University or ever got the Year 12 certificate but I know growing up, my family taught me strong work ethics. I was curious, I was always fascinated about the optimism of our culture. We grew up in a generation where there was a lot of negativity about our culture. I was very fortunate to be guided along the way from a lot of great mentors, a lot of great teachers, a lot of great Elders that kept feeding me stories and information. UTS is a foundation that thrives on knowledge, preserving knowledge, and passing that onto the next generation – similar to what Bangarra does. It is a wonderful thing that the higher education Jumbunna, with Professor Michael McDaniel here, is based as a hub in this University. It is so important that a lot of non-Indigenous institutions in this country have that Indigenous knowledge ground within their facilities. It is the heart to this land, it’s what identifies us as people. It’s there for you to share, it’s there for you to re-educate, it’s there for you to see history from the past in the present – from Indigenous eyes, Indigenous knowledge. There are wonderful similarities and that really is the heart and spirit of our land. I just want to congratulate UTS for allowing that relationship of Jumbunna and the Indigenous faculty here, help preserve that knowledge and inspire all those other different forms and mediums through the faculties where Indigenous knowledge can stimulate your consciousness. The Arts and storytelling is a huge part of our culture and it’s a huge part of your culture. Thank you.