Riley – who was a member of Bangarra Dance Theatre for 12 years and, more recently, a lecturer in contemporary dance at the Victorian College of the Arts – is only the sixth artistic director in the Adelaide-based company’s 56-year history.
He moved to Adelaide with his young family at the start of this year to take up the role after the departure of long-time AD Garry Stewart, and also follows in the footsteps of contemporary dance luminaries such as Elizabeth Cameron Dalman, Meryl Tankard and Leigh Warren.
“My vision is to make Australian Dance Theatre for Australian dance audiences again,” Riley tells InReview of his intention for the company, which before the pandemic had regularly toured overseas.
A Wiradjuri man from western New South Wales, he says he takes his cultural politics into everything he does. In his new role he is committed to “utilising and inviting and commissioning brilliant, intelligent First Nations artists… to make sure Australian Dance Theatre is representative of First Nations culture”.
Riley’s vision is embodied in the 2022 season he unveiled on Monday at the ADT’s home, The Odeon Theatre in Norwood, where supporters were also introduced to the company’s revamped ensemble of professional dancers. The only two returning members, Darci O’Rourke and Zoe Wozniak, have been joined by newcomers Brianna Kell, Ren Skye, Zachary Lopez and Jada Narkle.
Audiences will have their first opportunity to see the dancers perform together in May in Outside Within, which Riley describes as a triptych of stories, ideas and legacies. It will open at the Odeon before embarking on a regional tour of South Australia.
Outside Within beings with Immerse, conceived and directed by 2021 ADT associate artist Adrianne Semmens. It is inspired by Semmens’ relationship to water as a Barkindji woman and was originally performed last year as part of ADT’s Convergence program.
The triptych also includes a short film of contemporary dance and choreography, Mulunma – Inside Within, which Riley was commissioned to create for the 2021 Rising festival in Melbourne, where it was projected onto the Melbourne Museum.
Riley says Mulunma – Inside Within, which features him dancing alongside his then four-year-old son Archie, is based around the different ideologies behind Western forms of archiving – such as that used by museums and libraries – and a First Nations “living and perpetual” archive grounded in the infinite ancestral knowledge embodied in Country and cultural legacy.
“The Third expands on these ideas,” Riley says of the aptly named final piece in the triptych, which is a new work he has choreographed himself for the ADT company dancers. “You’re looking at the body as an archive. Our bodies hold archives… they hold our histories and our legacies and our memories.”
The new artistic director’s first full-length work for the company, Savage, will premiere in September at the Dunstan Playhouse and then have a short season in Canberra. It is still a work-in-progress, but Riley says the dance will explore the “truths and lies that our hearts and minds are sold on” – from stories about the founding of Australia, to the savagery of politics.
“As we get closer it will get more and more refined,” he says of Savage, which will be presented with a team of creatives including director Kate Champion, artist Dean Cross, lighting designer Matthew Adey and composer James Howard, and performed by a multi-generational cast including young performers from ADT’s after-school program.
Australian Dance Theatre’s final act of 2022 will be Cultivate, in December, which the company says will be grounded around its 2022 associate artist, Tobiah Booth-Remmers, and will also see The Odeon opened “to artists from the important pillars of storytelling, visual arts, music and dance”.
Dance is the oldest form of storytelling
Riley, who began his career at just 12 and has admired Australian Dance Theatre since he first saw it perform as an aspiring young dancer, says he feels “very honoured to be following in the footsteps of some of the giants of Australian contemporary dance” as he launches his first season as artistic director.
During his career he has performed extensively in Australia and around the world, as well as choreographing more than 15 works for a range of organisations and festivals, often using dance as a way to explore his own cultural identity and heritage.
“Dance is the oldest form of storytelling,” he tells InReview. “It is the most simple yet the most complex form of storytelling we have… I was drawn to dance because of the physicality and the complexity of using the body as that storytelling tool.”
It is also, he says, an extremely accessible art form: “It’s an invitation to look at the body and to be swept up and to experience something so primal with an audience without using words.”
Full details of Australian Dance Theatre’s 2022 season can be found on its website.
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