Jasmin Sheppard is a Tagalaka woman, a dancer-choreographer who grew up in Melbourne in a proud Aboriginal family, but one who lacked connection to her culture. Like her nana before her, Sheppard attended the local Christian church, but as a teenager, she began to question what she was learning.
“I realized there was something wrong with me. It did not align with my cultural values, how I wished to identify culturally and explore my heritage, ”she says Broadsheet. What she heard in church did not answer some of her burning questions: “What is the relationship between the peoples of the First Nations, our connection to land and religion?”
She began digging something, and her research took her back to the 19th century and onwards, where the relationship between missionaries and Aboriginal communities often resulted in the loss of their precious land.
“When people were led from their traditional homelands to the mission, they were traditional homelands [often] taken over. What followed shortly after was the White Australia policy, where they were not allowed to return to these home countries, ”she says. “I found a real discrepancy between the intent of the missionaries who came and the result of what happened – people who lost their families and their culture.”
Sheppard acknowledges that these are weighty topics, but when the Sydney Dance Company (SDC), artistic director Rafael Bonachela invited her to create a new work for the annual New race season, with productions by new and established choreographers, she knew she needed to explore these issues further through movement.
During the lockdown, she held two 90-minute zoom sessions with the SDC dancers and explained the concept and her choreographic process and was encouraged by the reaction.
“We had such good and rich conversations that the company was so generous in talking about it and pulling it apart,” she says. The result is the ironically named one Given to you, a 20-minute work created on six of the dancers that “explores religion and the use of religion by the power structures of colonization to take land from indigenous peoples through the missions”. It is listed for a collection of tracks from her regular collaborator, Wiradjuri composer Naretha Williams, who composed and performed the music on an organ in Melbourne Town Hall.
It was during her years as a student at the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association that Sheppard began learning about other dancers’ cultures, which inspired her to learn more about her own.
“It really set me on fire to know where my nana came from and get to know her community a lot more,” she says of her grandmother, who was taken from her home countries of Queensland to work at a cattle station and not return. “[Our family is] the result of displacement and colonization, so it’s a long journey of reconnection and attempts to find their way back to society and rebuild the bridges that were broken. “
Since then, Sheppard has deepened her cultural knowledge. She spent 12 years with the Bangarra Dance Theater, where she danced the lead role as the young Eora woman Patyegarang, choreographed on her; and choreographed the Helpmann Award-winning 2017 work Macq about the Appin Massacre of 1816 under NSW Governor Lachlan Macquarie. She has since had original works performed by the physical theater company Legs on the Wall (No remittance) and in full length The complication of the lyre birds staged at the Campbelltown Arts Center and this year’s Sydney Festival.
She has a hard time pointing out Given to you is not about black versus white, or colonizer versus colonized. Rather, she hopes it helps the audience understand this annoying problem a little better.
“In all my work, my goal is to shed light on something from a different angle so that people see things with a bit of critical thinking. Hopefully it is healing and educating and a way to bring people together. ”
Sheppard’s work will be performed alongside world premieres from three other choreographers: SDC dancer Jacopo Grabar, Melbourne-based choreographer, dancer and performer Lilian Steiner, and Sydney-based dancer-choreographer Rhiannon Newton.
That New race season represents the SDC’s first return to the scene after Sydney’s lockdown, and all four works appear to be incredibly diverse. For example, Steiners Spring again mixes technology, movement and soundscapes to produce a psychedelic experience where the dancers “compose” the sound live through motion-tracking sensors, all performed under UV light.
“It’s been such a treat to work on New race, “says Sheppard.” The company is great, so hardworking and open and generous, and the choreographers are a great group, all incredibly rich in what they do, a really interesting mixed cause. It feels really fun, and I hope so, too. is fun for the dancers. Something different. “
New Breed runs from November 25 to December 11 at Carriageworks.