Image for A Tragic Dance

A tragic dance
Source: Stateline Tasmania
Published: Friday, October 29, 2010 7:47 AEDT
Expires: Thursday, January 27, 2011 7:47 AEDT

AIRLIE WARD, PRESENTER: The life of Mathinna, a Tasmanian Aboriginal girl stuck between two cultures, is one of the most tragic stories of her time.

Immortalised in a colonial portrait, the girl was taken from her people and adopted into the household of Tasmania’s governor Sir John Franklin and his wife Lady Jane Franklin in the 1830s.

Her time with them was short lived and, for the rest of her life, she struggled to fit into both white society and the traditional culture she was taken from.

World renowned Indigenous dance company, Bangarra, has brought her story to life and this week began performances in Tasmania.

Stateline’s Lucy Shannon met the dances and found they’re both nervous and excited about the audience response here in Mathinna’s home state.

LUCY SHANNON, REPORTER: Tasmanians know Mathinna as the silent child in a red dress, staring out from Thomas Bock’s famous colonial portrait.

Now, through the Indigenous dance company Bangarra, she has a voice. Not only as a child but as the tragic young woman she became - stuck between two cultures.

STEPHEN PAGE, BANGARRA ARTISTIC DIRECTOR: I think for me the challenge was, you know, about the cultural significance and getting it right, I suppose, from a black perspective because it was the elders that wanted to awaken her story and bring to it a dance theatre production.

LUCY SHANNON: She was born Mary, on Flinders Island in the 1830s to the chief of a tribe but at the age of four she caught the eye of Tasmania’s governor Sir John Franklin and his wife Lady Jane and was taken away to join their household. They named her Mathinna.

For nearly 20 years, Bangarra artistic director Stephen Page has been transforming Indigenous songs, stories and myths into dance.

Over the years, as he brought performances to Tasmania, local elders urged him to take on a Tasmanian story.

STEPHEN PAGE: We had a few conversations about what story would be told and then I think the image the Thomas Bock painting of her somehow found itself to me and then the rest is history.

LUCY SHANNON: With approval and support from elders, Bangarra transformed the snippets of information into a story, incorporating local language, art and dance traditions.

It’s not just about Mathinna but all Tasmanian Aborigines of the time.

STEPHEN PAGE: When I did read information especially from the white perspective you tend to, I had a quite an anger in me.

There was just this anger about what happened to the people and it was the first time that I was able to re-educate myself about another countryman’s home and what happened.

So I was going to go all out there and come down and reclaim the massacre and put a spirit back into it but I thought, you know, you can do that and I suppose the integrity just gets lost in its anger.

LUCY SHANNON: He worked through the anger but didn’t shy away from the reality of Mathinna’s life. A simulated rape makes up just one of many sad scenes.

It’s unusual for a Bangarra work to take a narrative form.

For Elma Kris, taking on the role of actor as well as dancer has been a challenging and emotional journey.

The Torres Strait Islander was adopted herself as a child, so her deep response to Mathinna’s story began right when Stephen Page first mentioned the idea to her.

ELMA KRIS, BANGARRA DANCER: When he told me about it, we haven’t even created that piece yet, but I’m already crying because I’ve never heard a story like that before and it’s so devastating and emotional.

LUCY SHANNON: Two years of performing the role interstate hasn’t diminished the weight of emotion she feels every time she transforms into Mathinna on stage.

ELMA KRIS: Her tragedy has gone from a child and right through to the end and getting raped by sealers and all, and crying a lot on stage is so emotional because that’s what I have to do every night for her character and its so devastating.

LUCY SHANNON: The question of the motive behind the Franklin’s decision to raise Mathinna is a theme running through the work. Was she a trophy to show off or did they want to educate and help her? Or was it a bit of both?

STEPHEN PAGE: The problem I had with it was trying to work out about the good willing spirit of Lady Jane Franklin, whether Mathinna was an experiment.

Or whether there was a genuine liking to this young girl and I don’t think we will ever know.

LUCY SHANNON: Sidney Salter dances the part of governor, Sir John Franklin.

SIDNEY SALTER, BANGARRA DANCER: I felt that he basically didn’t have much to do with her. He adopted her and left her to the women of the family and then eventually found out that there was some sort of political reason that he became interested in her.

LUCY SHANNON: He says his character was a product of the time.

SIDNEY SALTER: At the end of story he sort of goes ‘okay well my jobs done here, so we’re going’ basically and left. So, to me, I think there’s a harshness side to him also, which he has to be, I suppose.

LUCY SHANNON: The Franklins returned to England when Mathinna was eight years old. After her few years of aristocratic luxury, she was sent to an orphanage and then returned to Flinders Island. She struggled to fit in and at the age of 12 she was back at the orphanage.

She finally rejoined her people at an Aboriginal settlement at Oyster Cove but died a few years later at the age of 21.

LOLA GREENO, ABORIGINAL COMMUNITY LIAISON: She had taken on drinking and that’s where her unfortunate life ended at a very young age.

But you have to realise that for cultural purposes she would have been almost rejected when she went back to her people because she was taken and had her culture removed.

LUCY SHANNON: Stephen Page and the Bangarra dancers feel like they’re finally bringing Mathinna home, as they perform in Launceston this week and Hobart next week.

The reception they receive here is very important to them.

ELMA KRIS: Bit nervous.

Also a good privilege to be able to bring them back. It’s great what Stephen has done. He has given me the opportunity to play her character as well and also the permission from the elders.

That’s a wonderful thing and a privilege for me to accept that.

LUCY SHANNON: If Lola Greeno’s reaction is anything to do by, they haven’t got anything to worry about.

LOLA GREENO: It was just taking on a rollercoaster of emotions when I first saw it in Melbourne, with another elder from the south, which was quite appropriate for one of us from the north and one from the south to see it. Seeing that Mathinna was born in the north of the state but she died in the south.

And I started off, I wanted to be up there dancing with the crew to start with. It was just opened so beautifully. Then it takes you on this journey and you follow her journey through her story, a dramatic story.

The dramatic side of it was, I almost had to gag myself from yelling out, “Mathinna, I will come and help you. I will save you.” And I thought, no, this is how powerful it was. The effect it had on me.

STEPHEN PAGE: I was very nervous about what she was going to think of it. If she could talk through the whole show, she would have been yelling out from the audience and I thought we were on a good thing in terms of the journey the integrity of the production, I suppose.

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