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Dancers add contemporary element to traditional dance
Kim Kirkman Dancers add contemporary element to traditional dance

Between them, Kimberley Aboriginal dancers Sermsah Bin Saad and Ann-Janette Phillips have stormed stages all over Australia.

Bin Saad gained national stardom as a contestant on So You Think You Can Dance in 2008 and Phillips is a recent graduate of the elite NAISDA Indigenous Dance College.

But it was a performance on home soil, at Mowanjum community near Derby, that had them truly quaking in their boots.

“Mowanjum Festival is the biggest traditional ceremonial dance in the WA,” Bin Saad said.

The strongly traditional indigenous festival celebrates the rich heritage and culture of the Worora, Ngarinyin and Wunambal people of the West Kimberley.

Last year the two Broome dancers were invited to perform there, and choreographed a piece which was completely contemporary, performed to a Coldplay song.

“Contemporary is a dangerous thing to use with traditional because it’s not ‘proper’,” Bin Saad said.

“From the old fellas’ eyes it’s more entertainment than ceremonial.

When the old fellas watch you dance, they really watch you and they make sure that you’re doing everything right.”

Phillips said it felt like their ancestors were watching through the elders’ eyes.

But, Bin Saad said, it was an opportunity for them to show contemporary Aboriginal dancers remain connected naturally to the traditional roots inside.

“It’s beyond the movement, they see our liyan, our feeling,” Bin Saad said.

For several weeks after the performance they worried, unsure how the dance had been received.

“Then they finally rang back and just said we loved it and we want you back this year,” Bin Saad said.

For this year’s performance, Phillips and Bin Saad will perform in white and ochre, their dance inspired by the night owl, and the Wandjina — supreme spirit and creator of the land.

The Mowanjum Festival will be held on Thursday, July 12, and feature traditional corroborees from 6pm at Mowanjum Art and Culture Centre, on the Gibb River Road.