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Director of Welfare, 1954-70

Sharing Indigenous culture

In April 1963, Harry Giese suggested that a representative of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust visit Darwin to view the performances of Aboriginal dancers and singers in that year’s North Australian Eisteddfod. Dynamic Trust Executive Director Stefan Haag, who had been marooned in Australia with the Vienna Boys’ Choir at the outbreak of World War II, was so impressed by their artistry and stagecraft that he set up two-week seasons for later that year in both Sydney and Melbourne. Dancers from Bathurst Island and Yirrkala were chosen to participate. The singers from Daly River included two women, who traditionally played important roles in chanting the song-cycles relating the legends of the Brinkin and Malak Malak people.1

This was the beginning of the Aboriginal Theatre Foundation. Logistically, its work presented many challenges. A dance sequence showing the spearing and killing of a kangaroo required, for instance, that a spear be broken by a wounded ‘animal’. The total of 36 rehearsals and performances required some 70 specially-made spears. Before the dancers set out, excursions were made to acquire special possum fur used in arm and head decorations. Ochres were gathered for body-painting.

The opening night in Melbourne in November 1963 was a huge success. Wrote Geoffrey Hutton in The Age: ‘This is not an Anthropologist’s curiosity, or a lecture-demonstration. It is live theatre and a memorable experience, which I recommend without reservation.’ Sydney audiences were bigger than Melbourne’s, near-capacity. Wrote The Bulletin: ‘Most of us have great goodwill towards Aborigines and their culture, without having more than a superficial knowledge of their art…This remarkable stage show is not to be missed.’

The Aboriginal Theatre Foundation was to develop in many different ways over the following years. Stefan Haag went on to take a group of performers to Japan.2  Through the 1970s, as the Aboriginal Cultural Foundation, dancers from Bamyili, Yirrkala and other areas toured to, and performed at festivals in places as diverse as Fiji, Nigeria and Mexico City.3

1 E.C. Evans, ‘Aboriginal Theatre’, Australian Territories Journal, 1964
2 Harry Giese, Planning a program for Aborigines in the 1950s, Northern Territory Library Service Occasional Paper 16, 1990, page 5
3 Presidents’ Reports, The Aboriginal Theatre Foundation, 1969-75

 

See Administrator Roger Dean on the tarmac at Darwin Airport farewelling a group of Aboriginal dancers on their way to perform at the Southeast Pacific Festival in Sydney, 1964, in the Harry Giese Collection at the Northern Territory Library at http://www.territorystories.nt.gov.au/handle/10070/32057