Daniel Riley McKinley – Of Earth and Sky

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Bangarra Dance Theatre presents Of Earth and Sky at the Glasshouse in early December. This amazing production is a double bill showcasing two standout performances that meld visual art, theatre and dance. In a similar way, Daniel Riley McKinley blends his dancing and choreographic talent on stage …


Hi Daniel. Share some of your back story with us – particularly your cultural and Indigenous background …

I have Wiradjuri blood from western NSW, in particular from the town of Wellington, and I also have Irish blood from my mum’s side of the family.

I joined Bangarra 6 years ago, at the start of 2007, and before that I studied at QUT (Queensland University of Technology) in Brisbane. I was studying for my Bachelor degree in fine arts, but received an associate degree in dance. Going back even before this, I was at high school in Canberra, and I was part of a youth company called Quantum Leap, which was what really drove my passion for dance and wanting to pursue it as a career. I wasn’t really aware that dance was a career option for men while I was in high school, but Quantum Leap was brilliant. I danced with them for 6 years, from Year 7 through to Year 12 … and that’s kind of my career in reverse!

So how old were you when you were first introduced to dance?

I would have been about 9. I was very physical when I was younger, and I’d play soccer in winter and cricket in summer. I kind of stumbled across dance by accident – my sister was at dance classes through the week while I was playing soccer and cricket, and mum or dad would come pick us both up. I remember going into the dance studio and waiting, and I really became quite taken with the physicality of the movement.

And with Tap Dancing, it was the rhythm … the syncopated rhythm that moves through the feet. I did Tap Dancing all the way through until Year 7, until I was introduced to the youth company.

What led up to you actually joining Bangarra in 2007?

I first witnessed Bangarra in 2001, when I was still at high school. They came to Canberra and performed a show called The Dreaming. I was so taken by the physicality and the story telling aspect of Bangarra … I felt so involved in the work, and the show was so filled with life, energy and the strong culture that surrounds us every day. I thought they were amazing.

I saw them in Brisbane while I was at university, and I’d contact them to do a company class or a workshop with them, so I developed a relationship with the dancers. I still dance with a couple of those dancers today …

At the end of 2006, I had some time off after uni finished. I was invited to spend a week with the company, and at the end of the week I was offered a job.

You’ve received some major accolades as a dancer, including being nominated for Dancer of the Year at the 2010 Deadly Awards. You’re a choreographer now as well … how much have you enjoyed the transition?

I was nominated for the Deadly Awards again this year, which is great.

I created the production called Riley in 2010. At that time I was 24, it was my fourth year in the company, and I was the youngest choreographer to create a full work for Bangarra.

It was nerve wracking of course, and it was harder than I imagined it would be … there were lots of little things and details. But I thoroughly enjoyed the process … It was a huge opportunity, and I wanted it to be professional; I didn’t want to put only half of my energy into it. I wanted to appear confident and comfortable in the role, and I think I did. I think we created a great work.

Tell us about the inspiration behind Riley – especially the work of your cousin and his Cloud Series of photographs …

Michael Riley was the photographer of the Cloud Series, which was the final photographic series he created before he passed away in 2004. I never got to meet Michael unfortunately, but through his work I got to meet numerous family members. It was lovely to make those connections; one of the reasons I joined Bangarra was to make that connection with my cultural heritage.

As the choreographer of Riley, what do you hope the performance conveys to the audience?

Some people don’t know Michael or aren’t aware of his Cloud Series, and I wanted to bring his images to life in another medium. Michael’s medium was photography, and mine is dance. What I really wanted to do was use his beautiful images and bring them to life through dance and movement. I hope the audience gains a real appreciation of Michael’s work. I also hope they gain an appreciation of Bangarra and our storytelling …

Of Earth and Sky, the production Bangarra is bringing to the Glasshouse, is a double billing, as there’s your production, Riley, but also Frances Ring’s piece – Artefact

Yes, the first work is Riley, then there’s a short interval before Artefact. What’s really nice about these two works is that both of them use visual art as the information and the core of the work. Mine is photography, and Artefact is about actual physical objects or artefacts that are in museums and art galleries around the world and were once used − like possum skin cloaks, flint spearheads, grinding stones – tools that Indigenous people had to use to survive. Frances’ work brings these tools to life.

This is where the name Of Earth and Sky came from then? Artefacts from the ground and clouds from the sky?

Absolutely. I like the title – I think it’s beautiful.

How many dancers are involved with the production, and are you actually dancing in this current tour as well?

Originally in 2010 I chose not to perform, as I wanted to try to make sure what I’d created translated to the audience. I’d always danced in Frances’ work, just not in Riley, but I am dancing this year in the complete double bill.

There are 13 dancers involved in the production altogether.

One of the descriptions I’ve read about Of Earth and Sky calls it “A fusion of visuals, movement and music”. Would you say this is a good summary?

Yes, I suppose it is. They are three very important elements in all of Bangarra’s work – particularly this one. We have images, projection of video; we have the music of David Page; and for me, the music informs my movement. In Indigenous culture, all three of those things are important: painting, whether it’s dot painting or bark painting, dance and song are married together – one is not performed without the other. So in that sense, it’s one hundred per cent true – it’s all three of those things presented on stage in unity.

Thanks Daniel. Interview by Jo Atkins.

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