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Chinese miners’ pilgrimage inspires unique dance spectacle


Choreographer and filmmaker Sue Healey is blending her two areas of expertise ­– while adding the challenge of a live broadcast from Robe’s rugged coastal cliffs – to pay homage to a story of migrant hardship and tenacity.

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To avoid paying an arrival tax imposed under anti-Chinese legislation introduced by the Victorian Government, more than 16,000 Chinese miners docked in Robe in the 1850s and embarked on the long walk – an arduous trek of more than 400 kilometres to the Victorian goldfields.

Their journey, and the tenacity it required, has inspired a contemporary dance show that promises to captivate audiences at this month’s OzAsia Festival.

“My work is very much about how the body interacts with the landscape and with the terrain, and it’s a very challenging terrain,” director and choreographer Sue Healey says of The Long Walk.

“It’s hard. It’s rocky. It’s difficult to dance on that, but that’s what will drive us. It’s really showing that incredible determination that those early migrants and miners would have felt in that space.”

A dance performance on the coastline of Robe is unique in itself, but there is another layer to this work. The show – featuring Asian-Australian dancers including Kimball Wong and Julian Renlong Wong ­– will be streamed live, via real-time drone recording, to the Adelaide Festival Centre’s Space Theatre and audience members watching at home.

“It’s about liveness and it is a live performance captured by a drone and other moving cameras in an amazing location,” Healey says.

“The crazy thing is that it’s edited live, and broadcast live to an audience. It’s not about watching a film in a traditional way; it’s been highly edited and highly crafted.

“For me, it’s not about making a film in the traditional way, either. It’s utterly different. In fact, it’s more like an improvisation. I am having to make split-second decisions about which camera I’m going to cut to, even down to the fact that there’s a musician on-site as well, who’s creating live sound to the images he sees me editing together.”

The composer and live musician is Australian percussionist Ben Walsh, who has performed and toured with groups including taiko drumming group TaikOz, percussion trio Circle of Rhythm  and high-energy group Tom Tom Crew.

“He’ll be on site on the coast, on the clifftop, and he’s very much a visual element as well as a sonic one. He’ll be captured by drones and other cameras as well,” explains Healey.

“He is quite simply extraordinary. He has a whole lot of technology that enables him to kind of paste very quickly but he’s a percussionist. He will also be using drums and very elemental sounds – rocks and metal – and he uses these big drums with rocks in them. I’m really looking at the idea that we’re searching for gold.

“The whole thing is an incredible, advanced, instantaneous making of art, and it’s incredibly exciting. It’s really terrifying, as well.”

Choreographer and filmmaker Sue Healey. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

It takes a long, multi-disciplinary career to acquire the skills to execute such a complex live performance, and over her 40 years as a choreographer, filmmaker and installation artist, Healey has created a range of different works for galleries, theatres and screens across Australia, New Zealand and Asia.

“I feel like every experience that I’ve had over the last 35 to 40 years of making work really consolidates into this rather crazy idea of a work,” she says, adding that her primarily focus is always “movement and the moving image”.

“Movement is the key. That’s what I’m passionate about. That’s what I create, sculpt. That’s my focus.“

Like many creative initiatives of the past couple of years, the concept for The Long Walk ­was borne from the limitations thrust upon artists during the pandemic.

“I had this idea of placing dancers safely, separated in a landscape, so that they weren’t close to each other, to get away from the pandemic issues,” Healey says. “Then, using my incredible drone team, we could capture the live performance and then broadcast it.”

The Long Walk was originally scheduled to premiere at the 2021 OzAsia Festival, but had to be postponed due to interstate border restrictions. It is one of several shows that festival artistic director Annette Shun Wah was able to reprogram for her 2022 program.

Healey says the work offers a different perspective on filmmaking and performance, and it still feels “utterly relevant” to present it now.

Using drones as an artistic medium allows her to move a camera 360 degrees around the action and dancers.

“For me, as a choreographer, it’s a dream to do this. To have these drones and moving cameras and then to broadcast to an audience who can experience it without the limitations of sitting in a seat from one vantage point. It’s fantastic on every level.”

Last month, Healey, who is Sydney-based, travelled to Robe to survey her canvas.

“It’s an extraordinary place,” she says.

“It was just great to be there and feel that history in this space. Those incredible rocky, limestone, crumbling cliffs, the colour of the water.

“Imagine what it must have been like in the 1850s, for all those thousands of Chinese miners who landed in that very isolated place that is completely alien: new landscape, environment. And then how they walked many hundreds of kilometres to the Victorian goldfields. I mean, it’s mind boggling, isn’t it?

“I’m very much paying homage to that resilience and grit and determination those miners must have had.”

Musician and composer Ben Walsh (left) will create live music on site for The Long Walk. Photo: Wendell Theodoro

Healey directs a cast five dancers. Asian-Australian dancers Kimball Wong and Julian Renlong Wong are at the heart of the piece, and are joined by Koh Yamada, a young street dancer, as well as two AC Arts graduates, Queenie Woo and Taylor Hoadley.

To make it more accessible, audiences can stream The Long Walk on their devices at home. However, Healey does have a couple of recommendations to maximise viewer experience.

“I really want to suggest that they [the audience] watch it on a large screen. Scale is important for something like this, because I’m looking at the massive scale of cliffs and waves crashing on the cliffs and the dancers being quite small. But then I cut to very close up cameras.

“If the audience can watch it on a large screen, it will be much better. Oh, and wear good headphones as well, so you can really hear the sound!”

The Long Walk is showing at the Space Theatre and available to stream live online at 4pm on October 23. It is part of the 2022 OzAsia Festival, which runs from October 20 until November 6.

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