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September 20, 2022

The violence of forgetting

Australian Dance Theatre’s new artistic director Daniel Riley is looking to change the future for First Nations creatives – starting with his new work 'SAVAGE', which has its world premiere this week and questions the telling of history.

  • This article was produced in collaboration with Australian Dance Theatre.

A Wiradjuri man from western New South Wales, Daniel Riley is one of Australia’s leading dancers and choreographers.

His formative teenage years were spent on Ngunnawal country in Canberra, where he discovered contemporary dance and, like the majority of Australian schoolkids, was taught a version of our nation’s history we now know to be lacking.


21—25 September
Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre
Festival Drive, Adelaide 5000
Tickets and more info

SAVAGE is Daniel’s first full-length work as the new artistic director for Australian Dance Theatre, since taking up the role in January. The work also represents another milestone in a stellar career that includes 12 years dancing at Bangarra Dance Theatre and, most recently, working as creative associate and associate producer to Dr Rachael Maza at ILBIJERRI Theatre Company, Australia’s longest established First Nations theatre company.

“It’s just very fortunate I’ve ended up as the custodian of ADT at the moment, and I get to make this as my first piece,” says Daniel. “SAVAGE is a work that’s been brewing with me for a little while.”

Unofficially subtitled The violence of forgetting, this urgent work is an exploration of power, myth and identity. Daniel says his inspiration came from several places: history and the way it has been told; the parts of history that “we wilfully believed” in the narrative-building context of Australia; and truth-telling by his own people.

“As a Wiradjuri man, I know that a lot of history that is taught, or that is the ongoing rhetoric around certain ideas of us as a nation, isn’t true,” he says. “SAVAGE has been inspired [by] my First Nations ideas, my First Nations practices, and the incredible First Nations leaders who have come before me and who have questioned the telling of history that’s been incorrect.”

Daniel Riley. This picture: Jonathan van der Knaap


Daniel’s intention is not to re-educate audiences through the work, but to encourage engagement with other ideas and to question “what our hearts and minds have been sold for many, many years”.

We are at a defining cultural moment in Australia in which there is a call to hear more diverse voices in society, from politics to workplaces to the arts. Still, it is surprising to note Daniel is the only First Nations director of a non-First Nations arts company in Australia. He says “in many ways, it was time” that a First Nations person led the iconic dance company. “I’m just very fortunate that it’s me.”

His vision for ADT is to have Australian stories told by Australian artists. “And for me, being able to work with incredible First Nations artists, incredible artists from diverse backgrounds, making contemporary dance for everybody,” he explains. “People look to ADT in terms of what’s happening in contemporary dance in Australia, and we [can] lead that way.”

With SAVAGE, Daniel has brought together a team that includes leading dramaturg Kate Champion, visual artist and Worimi man Dean Cross, lighting designer Matthew Adey and composer and Jaadwa man James Howard. Dean recently exhibited in the 2022 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Free/State, while James and Daniel have collaborated on six projects in the last three years. Dean is also a dancer and choreographer.

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“I need to and want to be inviting many First Nations artists here. James has never made a score for a full-length work before, and Dean never designed for stage before,” says Daniel, who is passionate about creating new pathways and opportunities for others.

“Like me when I was younger, you just need that one possibility to open you up to a whole new way of working or a whole new art form, and it can take off. It’s incredibly important that all companies are supporting First Nations artists.”

“For all of our art forms in our First Nations world – song, dance, visual art – we need each other. There is a balance there.”

As well as the six company dancers, the cast of SAVAGE also includes nine students from the graduating class of Bachelor of Creative Arts (Dance) at Flinders University.

“I wanted this work to speak to not only me and my company artists, but to the generation that’s coming through,” Daniel says of the decision to involve graduates. “Because my generation will change things to a certain point, but the next generation, they carry the baton after that.”   

SAVAGE has its world premiere on Kaurna Country at the Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre, 21—25 September. It then tours to Ngunnawal/Ngambri Country (Canberra) on 29-30 September.

For tickets and more information, see here.

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