Alumni Feature: Thomas E.S. Kelly - 17.04.18

Thomas E.S. Kelly is a 2012 NAISDA graduate who is currently making waves in the performing arts industry.

In addition to recently launching his own dance company, Karul Projects and performing with some of the biggest names in Australian dance, Thomas has created a work as part of Festival 2018 for the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games and last year won a Green Room Award for Outstanding Choreography by an Emerging Artist/Choreographer.

We recently sat down with Thomas to learn more about his life after NAISDA and find out what advice he has for young artists trying to make it in the industry.

Photo by Zan Wimberley

When did you attend NAISDA?

I started training at NAISDA in 2009 and graduated in 2012. It’s grown a lot since I was there. Back then there were only 18 Developing Artists in total!

My overall relationship with NAISDA has spanned over ten years – four years of which I was a Developing Artist and the other six in which I have worked with NAISDA in some respect or another.

What was your most memorable experience when studying at NAISDA?

If I had to choose just one, it would be performing at Garma Festival. It was a very similar experience to our Cultural Residencies in the sense that many of our Cultural tutors and family from Gali’winku were there, however it was particularly special because of the fact that it was just four of us.

Garma is such an amazing event – you get to experience everything from talks to performances, workshops and more. We got to perform a full show at the event and I spoke at a forum.

How do you think NAISDA has helped you grow as an artist?

I never really had a Plan B and NAISDA helped me to achieve my Plan A by being there for me and supporting me. That’s good news for me, because nobody really wants to do their Plan B.

If it wasn’t for NAISDA, I’d probably be a lawyer right now or something else that I personally don’t believe to be as fun.

What drew me to NAISDA is that I’ve always been an attention seeker and have loved creating stuff and being in charge. When I was a teenager, I got a football injury and couldn’t play so I put my energy into dance and performance.

I wanted to do something in drama and my teacher suggested NAISDA due to the various performing arts elements you get to experience. As soon as I started at NAISDA I never looked back.

Photo by Hayley Rose

Tell us a bit about what you’ve been doing since graduating?

Since graduating I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of Australia’s top dance companies and artists – Vicki Van Hout, Shaun Parker and Company, Branch Nebula, Chunky Move, ERTH and more. I’ve also been making my own works.

My last work [MIS]CONCEIVE toured both nationally and internationally and won a 2017 Green Room Award for Outstanding Choreography by an Emerging Artist/Choreographer.

Last November I founded my own company, Karul Projects (‘Karul’ meaning ‘everything’ in Yugambeh, my grandmother’s dialect). I’ve been working on lots of projects, including creating a work as part of Festival 2018 for the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.

What’s been the hardest part of that journey?

For me, it was graduating and understanding where I sit in the industry as an Indigenous dancer who did not get in to Bangarra. It meant figuring out who I am as an artist and what I was going to do. That’s why I respect Vicki Van Hout so much and why she holds a special place in my heart – she took me under her wing and mentored me, putting me in my first full length show, ‘Long Grass’.

At the start, it was all about defining what I would become and how I would make this artist life work.

Have you discovered anything about yourself or about the industry that surprised you?

Not really. You’ve got to value yourself and take the good with the bad.

When I first graduated, it was my five-year goal to have a full-length work accredited to my name. I achieved that in four years. Within five years, I had three works to my name and I opened up my own company, which was my ten-year goal.

It’s a very competitive industry. You shouldn’t be upset if you don’t get an opportunity. People don’t understand that I may get some great opportunities, but for every one or two that I do get, I miss out on eight or ten others that I applied for.

Be resilient. Don’t let the opportunities that don’t work out define you. It’s what you do afterwards that defines you. I believed I could push myself but I wasn’t destroyed upon not getting where I wanted to be because I knew the industry was tough so I just keep pushing. And I’m still pushing.

Photo by Simon Wood

What’s next for you?

There are a lot of exciting projects coming up, heaps of which are still under wraps and I can’t talk about yet – which is hard because I really want to share them! I have a new work for PACT Theatre coming up in June this year, as well as a new work The Song Company in August. I will also be working on the development of my new major work for 2019.

Finally, what advice might you give a young person thinking of a career in dance?

To be prepared for scary moments, because there are scary moments, but know that there are so many exciting, fun and proud moments that will follow. Soon, those good moments will overpower the scary moments.