Since the age of 16, Monica Stevens – a proud Bama woman born on Yidjini Country in Far North Queensland – has spent her life pushing the boundaries of what society considers ‘acclaimed’ performance art, ultimately shaping the way Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are viewed in the broader community.
She is a NAISDA graduate, esteemed choreographer, teacher, Founding Member of Bangarra Dance Theatre and an arts researcher who recently earned her Master of Arts at Deakin University.
We had a yarn with Monica about her time at NAISDA, her professional career, and her advice to emerging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Artists forging their way in the industry.
Tell us about that Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre (AIDT) workshop that you attended in Year 10 which started you on your dance and performing arts journey.
Monica: It was deadly! I attended with a group of school friends and we drove over an hour to get to there, so it was a long trek for us. But it was very exciting.
I can still remember the first time I watched the Black performers dancing and thinking ‘wow!’ You have to understand that this was at a time when there was nothing out in the community showing Aboriginal people doing anything extraordinary.
It was a lifechanging moment for me – I had never thought about studying dance before that, so it was really the start of my whole journey and the reason I chose to attend NAISDA.
As you mentioned, following high school you attended the Aboriginal/Islander Skills Development Scheme (ASIDS which would later become current-day NAISDA). What was your experience training at NAISDA?
Monica: It was amazing! We became adults when we moved to NAISDA. We got to do our own thing and make our own decisions – you know, we were being radical and finding our own way.
Interestingly, before I got to NAISDA I didn’t know much about the history of Black people as it was never spoken about at school or in community. I arrived at NAISDA – which was in the middle of Sydney at the time – and began to see people in a new light.
I mean, it was also very strange as it was a time in Australian history when landmark battles were being waged and won by Aboriginal people, for Aboriginal people.
Not long before this, Aboriginal people gained citizenship and our rights extended to financial assistance, equal pay, and we won back rights to our land and rights to the preservation of our cultural heritage.
We were adding our voices to the story and really shaping how people viewed Indigenous people. It was a real privilege to be part of that modelling of history through my art. So, the whole experience was eye-opening to me.
You have continued a strong association with NAISDA over the years. What has kept you coming back in various capacities?
Monica: Culturally, we always come back to home base. Right now, I am back in Cairns as I have gained a significant amount of knowledge over the past few years and it’s time for me to pass it on.
NAISDA is another one of my home bases. Each time I choose to return, it’s because I feel it’s the right time to present my new findings to the next generation.
Why do you feel that cultural and creative organisations such as NAISDA, AIDT and Bangarra are important to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and learning?
Monica: As I said with home bases, culturally these are places where we belong – where we have a connection and a safe place. It’s also where the information is. It’s where Elders – both Black and White – come to share their knowledge, their experience and their story.
Currently, Australia has a Eurocentric point of view on the arts, and cultural dance is not seen for what it is. Art needs to look like something the viewer can refer to, and Indigenous dance is quite different to what most Australians are familiar with. The more exposure our cultural dance receives, the broader the reference point for the general public.
Organisations such as NAISDA and Bangarra play a big role in that exposure through their training of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and their performances. NAISDA does a great deal in preparing Developing Artists to become individuals of their own making, to choose their path into adulthood and have access to a wealth of knowledge in a culturally safe environment.
Bangarra then allows them to move on to the next level of training or learning in life, with a different group of people and learning from a different style of teaching where they need to adapt and grow.
Congratulations on having recently earned your Master of Arts from Deakin University. What inspired you to go back to study?
Monica: It was time to get new credentials as credentials make people listen. My aim is to influence positive change, so I want to be able to stand up with the experts and speak to them about dance and contemporary dance. In fact, I have always considered taking my research into a PhD, so I also saw this as a stepping-stone to become a Doctor of Arts.
But credentials are only academic. Culture is about having years of experience, which I am fortunate to have. So, getting my Master’s is a way of balancing those two worlds for me.
Your Master’s research project addresses the issue of ‘acclaim’ in relation to Indigenous Australian dance and the use of technology to advance dance thinking and practise. Could you expand on this a little bit?
Monica: Acclaimed dance in the Western fashion is what we think dance should be. I argued that acclaimed can only be in the eyes of the seer.
For example, I am labelled an Indigenous Choreographer, therefore I am different, and the argument can be made that “acclaimed” can only refer to a non-Indigenous person.
My research aimed to prove that my dance is dance – there is no distinction. How it’s viewed and received depends completely on the person watching it.
The same can be said for people referring to Bangarra. They are labelled Indigenous Dance Theatre, never Australian. Therefore, they cannot be acclaimed as they are different.
I also focused on using technology to transform a video of live cultural dance into a non-identifiable avatar form, and then studying the audience reactions to confirm my thesis.
Each stage was amazing because I had to choreograph and perform the dance, learn about the motion capture process, render the video, and then figure out how to present it on stage.
From next year, NAISDA offers an Advanced Diploma to Practising Artists. What do you consider the importance/relevance of such a qualification to be?
Monica: Continued education shows your ability to keep progressing – to expand your mind and your knowledge base. Learning new things is good for your wellbeing, mind, body and spirit.
I see the Advanced Diploma as a stepping-stone. Each course you complete teaches you something different and it’s your job to become very good at that set of skills.
From a community point of view, we need people to teach dance in regional areas. The next generation is responsible for starting new organisations in Australia where dancers can work. Bangarra cannot be the only one – there needs to be a competitive edge.
So, who is going to be the new leader of a new company that addresses the global audience? These are the pathways I see opening with the offering of an Advanced Diploma.
In the current environment for our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander creative and cultural sector, what opportunities and challenges do you see emerging with regards to career and performance opportunities, especially in this time of COVID-19.
Monica: What you do after COVID is under your control, and you just have to think a little differently. People should start focusing on their local communities more and how to get locals working rather than the whole world. I really think that we’ll start to see more regional people stepping up and creating their own opportunities moving forward.
In what ways have you seen the Indigenous dance sector change over your years in the industry?
Monica: The career options have multiplied. You can now become a dancer or a performing arts administrator, a photographer, or move into graphic design – there are so many options available. A grounding in dance is where you build the discipline and resilience for making things work. It develops your work ethic because it requires you to follow a project through to the end.
What advice or reflection would you offer young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander auditionees, artists and performers at the beginning of their pathways into dance, performance and the creative industries?
Monica: Build up your resilience. It’s not an easy career path, but you can’t quit. If you start something, then finish it. This might just be the stepping-stone that leads to something else. So, stick with it, get your certificate, and see what doors open for you.
1984 NAISDA Graduate
Master of Arts Deakin University