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Upfront: Amrita Hepi is redefining dance

Meet the first Australian ever chosen for the ASOS Supports Talent programme

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Amrita Hepi is a force, not only within the world of dance, but within the community and world at large. Raised in an environment where she was encouraged to express herself and her culture through dance, the professional dance maker, dance activist, and teacher proudly embraces her Australian Aboriginal and Maori heritage. Her dance practice deals with race, gender, body, and intersectionality in awe-inspiring ways. Recently she was announced as the first Australian ever to be chosen for the ASOS Supports Talent programme, a global initiative enabling young creatives to pursue their passion projects. As a result Amrita has collaborated with four dancers with inherently political practices to choreograph solo pieces that were filmed around Sydney. We spoke with Amrita about how these dancers have influenced her and how she’s helping carve out an inclusive, judgement-free space through her teaching.

Congratulations on being selected for the ASOS Supports Talent programme, how did you feel when you heard you’d been selected?

I was over the moon! I just didn’t think I would get it, because I’m a dancer, and looking at the past recipients, they’ve been mostly working in more kind of tangible creative fields, so I was overjoyed. It happened quite immediately too. I went to the interview, a week later I found out I got it, and a week after that I flew to London. 

For the project, you’ve choreographed four solos with performers who you believe embody political practices, can you tell us a little about the process of selecting them?  

I selected four artists: Bhenji Ra, Jahra Rager, Angela Tiatia, and Waangenga Blanco. They’re all people from my community that I have either worked with, or been in awe of, or been mentored by.

Bhenji Ra is an amazing trans performance artist and they embody a lot of conversations that I think a lot of people are having in regards to identity and gender. Jahra is somebody that I’ve collaborated with to make a full-length dance work before, we met on a First Nations residency in Canada. Her and I have been having a lot of conversations around Australia and its location and New Zealand and its location. Then Angela Tiatia, she’s an amazing performance artist, video artist, a mother, and I view her as a bit of a mentor. She embodies a lot of conversations that we’re having as First Nations women from the Pacific, and she’s just a force. Waangenga Blanco is someone that I’ve always looked up to, he’s a principal dancer at Bangarra and culturally he’s so important. Physically in his body he holds so much knowledge and knowledge from a dance perspective.

Working with all of these people to create these four films I wanted to make something that reminded Australians and especially people from the Pacific their importance of place. We have a tendency to really look out and to compare ourselves. Because of the process of colonisation we really look to our coloniser for legitimacy and history, rather than looking at what exists within and remembering our shared histories. As well as our proximity to our neighbours and the powers that exists in that. I think that all of these dancers or performers are quite important in re-establishing agency in the place that we exist in.

Have you seen the Australian dance community change during your time as a dance maker? Is there starting to be more support for dancers from a variety of cultural, social, and ethnic backgrounds then before?

I have seen a change, but it’s also only the very tip of the iceberg. The thing is, I’ve seen a change because people have literally had to beat down doors, and I’ve benefited from that. It means that I have to continue. Being a dancer that comes from a minority background has this sense of responsibility, a cultural responsibility. It can seem like a lot—but it also gives you a lot to work with. I have been so blessed to be funded by quite a few people, but the support that is there is the support of elders within the dance community, and that’s indigenous and non-indigenous.

Australian dance is so exciting across the spectrum. There are so many exciting that are happening, from contemporary performance to commercial performance, and I just love it all. It’s always going to keep on changing but I’m throwing things into the pot continuously. I think as long as me and the members of each of my communities and especially the people in these films are around then yes, I think there will be continued change and growth for minorities. That’s why I think it’s important to make yourself and these other people visible.

You’re also a dance teacher, how do you work to create an inclusive and non-judgemental environment in your classes?

I try my goddamned best to create an environment of inclusivity. Dance is a spectrum of things and there’s so many different ways of doing it, there are so many different disciplines. A lot of the time when we think of dance we think of thin, muscly, neo-classical elitism, with high legs on a stage. If we aren’t that or we’re not there on that stage, then we aren’t dancers and I think that, not only is it limiting, but it is in my opinion, completely untrue.

My first experience with dance was from a community perspective and also from watching film clips as a way to see myself in something. I think a lot of black popular culture was something that nourished me, because I was like, “Where am I in this landscape? Oh, I can be there.” So I think, in creating an inclusive environment, we have to broaden our definition of what dance is, broaden our education and perspectives of what dance is.

A lot of people do dance lessons when they’re younger but as they get older think they’re not really “good” at dancing and wonder why should they continue with it.

Totally, and our definition of “good” is so two dimensional. Our definition of how dance is worthy or valuable is very neo-classical. I don’t mean to undermine ballet or any of the Western traditions, because I definitely come from them as much as elsewhere, but I will say that the predominant vision of dance is hopefully becoming broader and possessing a lot of different colours.

Is there a specific moment when creating dance that gives you the most joy?

When I was working on this project, it was like every time we’d do a take in a different spot I’d find myself grooving along with the person or counting down with them. It was so exciting to see each shot come to life. 

I know pop culture is a big influence on your dance practice, who or what’s inspiring you right now?

Oh wow, there’s a couple of people. I’ve been looking a lot at an artist called Theaster Gates, I find him to be incredibly inspiring. He uses art or the artist as an activator. He works over in the states and I find him incredibly influential. Recently I was at Yurramboi Festival in Melbourne and during that festival I had the privilege of attending the National Indigenous Dance Forum. That was amazing to see so many black and brown people in the same room talking about their sectors of dance and sharing their experiences, you know First Nations people from Taiwan to Canada to America to New Zealand, that was really inspiring for me. I’m really enjoying listening to SEVDALIZA, I think she’s great. I’ve also been listening to a lot of James Baldwin and Malcolm X because it was his birthday the other day.

In terms of pop stuff, I recently went to a Princess Nokia concert when I was in Germany. It was so amazing! She did this thing that I’d like to try at some of my classes. If I was a rapper I feel like I’d be a bit like her, she had great show womanship. She said, “this is a space where we look after the women, and also, as well, can I please get all the people of colour to the front.” And in Germany as well, a place where there’s so much history and in some ways it’s quite monocultural. The crowd split and all the people of colour went to the front and it was amazing to see. I really like her. 

Do you have any advice for up and coming creatives wanting to get their work out there?

I feel like I’m still an emerging artist myself. I’ve had a couple of people contact me and be like, “I want to do what you’re doing.” I think the advice I would give people is to think about who your idols are, but beyond what they’re doing now. Look at them before that time, where did they study, what did they read, where did they first present their work, who were they having conversations with.

Think about what you want to do and what your practice is and do it with vigour. It’s one thing to have a great idea but think about why the fuck the idea is important and how can it contribute. Is it useful? And really be rigorous in your research as much as you are in your physical doing. I think that’s important because a lot of the time good intentions pave the path to hell. And, as clichéd as it sounds, just do it. If you make an impression on one person with your dance piece, event, writing, whatever, that might be the one person that you’re going to work with and collaborate with and who’s going to take you to the next level. Just do it and obviously ask permission, but you don’t need that much permission to just fucking do it.

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