Daniel Riley is the newly appointed artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre. Daniel is a proud Wiradjuri man of Western New South Wales. He grew up around Canberra, inspired by the Tap Dogs, learning contemporary dance, ballet, and tap. But it was a chance encounter with ADTs founder, Elizabeth Cameron Dalman, which changed the direction of Daniel’s life to one of pursuing dance as a career. He ultimately headed north to study dance at Queensland University of Technology and following graduation and various adventures building his craft around the globe, Daniel joined Bangarra Dance Theatre, where he spent the next 12 years performing, choreographing, and honing his creative skills. In this incredibly open interview, Daniel talks about his childhood in dance, about being bullied, the impact of First Nations’ dances, and how he’s gearing up to take the helm of the Australian Dance Theatre in 2022.
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Claudia Lawson: Look, first, I just want to say thank you so much for joining us here today. I want to go back right to the beginning. Can you tell us about where you grew up and about your family?
Daniel Riley: Yeah. I’m a Wiradjuri man from Western New South Wales, is my cultural background and heritage. I can trace my family lineage out towards Wellington and Dubbo and Orange in the Western New South Wales of Wiradjuri country. My dad was a teacher and so we moved a lot. But being in Canberra, that’s my hometown because that was my formative years. I did year seven to year 12 in Canberra. I gained my lifelong friends in Canberra. I actually found dance in Canberra.
CL: I was going to ask, where did dance coming to that childhood?
DR: Yeah. I actually was tap dancing when I was about nine or 10 when I was living in Sydney at the time.
CL: Like that whole Tap Dogs?
DR: The Tap Dogs, totally. Tap Dogs are my heroes, the Blundstones, the whole thing. Obviously, all Newcastle based as well that are coming out of the steel works there. I was really, just enthralled by these men who were tap dancing and I just fell in love with that. I was very physical as a young boy. I played football or soccer in the winter and cricket in the summer. I was on all the sport teams. I ran long distance. I represented in long distance. I think at some point along the line, it seemed like maybe another physical kind of challenge, this idea of tap dancing or dancing. I do have vague memories of my mum picking me up from soccer practice and swinging by the dance studio where my younger sister was dancing. I have vague, like super vague kind of pencil sketch memories of all like half developed Polaroid in my head of me sitting and watching this room full of girls dancing. Then the next image or Polaroid I have in my head is me, the only boy amongst that group of girls.
CL: Which was often the case, which is often the case in those dance halls in regional New South Wales and the ACT or all over Australia, really.
DR: All over Australia. I was living in Avalon on the Northern beaches at the time in Sydney and my first tap teacher, I remember very well. The name was Jess Morrison and she’s actually the mother of James Morrison, the famous trumpeter.
CL: So James Morrison’s mum was a tap teacher.
CL: Wow. Maybe that’s where-
DR: That’s right.
CL: . . . he got his love for-
DR: His rhythm and his musicality and exactly, exactly. Then from there, we moved to Canberra. This is actually where ADT first made its appearance into my world. Dad crossed paths with this woman called Elizabeth Cameron Dalman.
CL: She founded ADT, didn’t she?
DR: Exactly right. Elizabeth founded ADT. She must’ve got talking to my dad and dad said, “Oh, my oldest son is a dancer.” She said, “Okay. There’s this new youth company that’s just started in Canberra called Quantum Leap.” It’s now called QL2, but it’s the same organization there at Gorman house run by Ruth Osborne, who’s the artistic director there. I went along to my first contemporary dance class and I was just completely infatuated with it, a room full of like-minded boys and girls using our bodies, throwing our bodies through space, using our bodies in different ways, using into and out of the floor, the physicality of it, the ideas that swirl around the dance studio.
DR: I must have been 12 or 13 and it was 1999. I remember that much. The first project was Rough Cuts, which was an all-male, all boys youth dance company, dance work. I joined that. Then I did every project all the way out through until the end of year 12. It wasn’t until year 11 that I actually really realized that dance could be a career. It was Ruth Osborne, as I said, the artistic director was like, “Well, you can go to university.” I was like, “What do you mean? I can do this for real? I can get paid to do this, so I can study dance?”
CL: I find it really fascinating that you said you saw Tap Dogs, which is an all-male group, which was really, except for maybe those, that era out of the States with Frank Sinatra, there were very few all-male dance groups at that time. Then you also said under Elizabeth, another all-male group. I was just wondering, did you suffer bullying as a kid growing up?
DR: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Most vividly, I suppose, through high school. I went to Telopea Park High in Canberra, which is in Griffith. Yeah, absolutely. I was the smallest of all the boys. That’s high school. I didn’t really hit into puberty and crest puberty until much later than all the other boys. They were developed physically more. Through my dancing both at school and externally, I had developed stronger relationships with the girls at high school, so that may have been threatening to the boys, but more than anything, I remember just being smaller in physicality, which obviously is easy pickings for teenage boys. So I absolutely did suffer bullying through high school, but I think what got me through that was this external community of my dance community that I had found. We supported each other even though we’re all at different schools across Canberra. That gave me the drive to get through the days in a way and then be able to dance in the afternoons or on the weekends.
CL: Do you think also having seen the Tap Dogs and other male dancers made you have that vision, because I’ve spoken with other people who have said, “I was the only guy in the room. I only really knew that you could be a ballerina.” So they’re not even sure how they knew to keep, I suppose, chasing that dream, but they just knew that they love dance, and so that’s what kept them there.
DR: Yeah. I think also, one of the beautiful things about, especially my time with Quantum and being in that youth company was we would see every dance company that would come through the Canberra Theatre Centre. I saw Bangarra when I was in year 10 and instantly, I saw myself reflected on stage. I saw a place where I could explore my cultural identity through my chosen form of dance.
CL: So important. So important.
DR: So important. And ADT, I remember seeing the original “Birdbrain” with that original 18 cast and it just blew my mind. Me and my teenage friends looking at that, seeing the men on stage throwing themselves around the space, thinking, “That’s incredible. Why can’t we do that?” To see that as a-
DR: Possibility, I think, is the biggest thing.
DR: That was absolutely a drive for me, but I think it’s interesting that that difference between boys seeing male ballet dances and thinking that’s dance, whereas I saw Tap Dogs, something so grimy and gritty and hugely technical, musical, and just in a way, so different to ballet. I hadn’t seen ballet. I didn’t do my first, I suppose, plié or fondu until year 11 when I knew I needed ballet to get into university.
CL: Which is so incredible because most dancers, even if they end up being contemporary dancers, generally have early training in ballet.
DR: Generally, yeah, but it was year 11 when I realized, okay, in 20 months time, it was halfway through year 12 when the audition rounds would come and all the universities would come through Canberra. We all knew that the audition consisted of a contemporary class, a ballet class, and a solo. So I made the decision to invest in that and undertook weekly ballet classes. So if they said something in ballet terminology, I could go, “Okay, I may not be good at it, but I know what you’re talking about.”
CL: So you get into university and you start to have these, I suppose, semi-professional, you moved to Adelaide and do nine months.
DR: Yes. In my second year, yeah. At the time, Cheryl Stock was the head of dance. She came to me and she said, “Dan, the Australia Council has this new grant opening up in a couple of months. It’s called Making Tracks. It’s for young emerging Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander dancers to be on a professional succumbent with a selected, company and the company that’s put their hand up is Leigh Warren & Dancers.” So Cheryl helped me put [it] in. It was my very first Australia Council application and I was successful. I got this grant, which enabled me to live in Adelaide. There was never any pressure for me to have to perform, but it just so happened that I performed in two works. One was at the Space Theatre at the Adelaide Festival Center, and that was the work by Anthony Rizzi, who was a dancer. He danced with Forsythe many years ago and-
CL: William Forsythe, the choreographer.
DR: That’s right. Then the second work I performed in was called “Petroglyphs- Signs of Life,” which again, the world works in mysterious ways was co-choreographed by Leigh Warren and Gina Rings. But also, I performed alongside Frances Rings, who I then have developed a relationship with through Bangarra and who’s now associate artistic director of Bangarra. The why is a crossing all over the place, which is really remarkable.
CL: Yeah, and that network’s growing.
CL: You’re obviously very well known for your career at Bangarra. Can you tell us about what it’s like to be in Bangarra?
DR: Oh, that’s very nice of you to say. My time at Bangarra was formative in my cultural identity. An institution like Bangarra offers a young, Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander dancers, the possibility to connect with and explore our cultural identity on stage. That may not necessarily always be through your mob or your nation, but it is this sense of being immersed in culture throughout your employment, whether that be regional, remote, national, international touring. It was full-time work. I was where I wanted to be. I was there. I’d made it. I was so, so happy to be there.
CL: Was it amazing to work with Stephen Page?
It was really wonderful to be at Bangarra, for sure. It can get very intense. That kind of an ensemble being with each other day in, day out, planes, trains, taxis, Uber’s-
CL: It’s like family at Christmas, does it?
DR: It’s like family Christmas, but for 11 months of the year. It really is. I made some incredibly important relationships through my time there that I still hold very dear, Waangenga Blanco, Jasmin Sheppard, Luke Currie-Richardson, all of these who I genuinely, my brothers and sisters now. We’re supportive of each other’s careers. Waangenga, Jasmine, and I, we all have families now. We have children. They’re all the same age. So we’ve just got each other’s backs a lot and that feels really nice to have taken that out of that time.
CL: Did you always have dreams to become a choreographer? Because you created so many works while at Bangarra and I just wondered if that’s something that someone saw in you or is that something that you had dreamt about?
DR: Yeah. I had always liked the idea of it. Early on, in any dancer’s career, it’s you either like creating or you don’t. I just like making dance. I like making steps, stringing them together, stage formation, the simplistic ideas of what that is. I enjoyed that. Then the more I’ve been making and the more opportunities I’ve been so very fortunate to receive, what I’m most liking now is this idea of curating artists in a room, the right artists for each in particular story to tell story, to explore an idea fully. It was through all the commissions of Bangarra that I had been able to see into the world of making work of scale, lighting designers, costume designer, sound designer, and ensemble of dances with the support of a rehearsal director. Bangarra, at its largest—I think when I was making “Dark Emu,” there was about 16 of us and that’s a lot of people looking at you waiting for inspiration or waiting for you to tell them something.
CL: I suppose over that time at Bangarra, I suppose you didn’t emerge as a choreographer, but I suppose you got to hone that skill so that you left Bangarra as both a dancer and a choreographer. Is that right?
DR: Yes. Yeah, I would say so, for sure. I definitely got to hone the skill of working a room, being able to hold a room during a creative process, being able to negotiate with other creators, being able to negotiate with dancers in a space, being able to trust dancers in a space as well, and being able to trust my own instinct and my own gut reaction. Yeah, I’ve been very fortunate in the works that have come my way. I’m currently making a work on the Queensland Ballet, which is premiering for their bespoke season later in the year, fingers crossed. Hopefully, I can be back up there for late September, early October.
CL: To see that work, of course. Was there a catalyst for you to leave Bangarra?
DR: Yeah, there was. It just became very evident that Bangarra wasn’t the place for me anymore. I had a family. My son was born early 2017. So at the end of 2018, it just didn’t feel right anymore.
CL: Yeah, times have changed.
DR: Times have changed. I knew what I wanted to be doing and I knew how I could contribute. It was just made very aware to me that I wasn’t able to contribute that way at Bangarra anymore. So yeah, I made the decision to leave.
CL: Where did you head?
DR: To Melbourne, down here. I took up a job at Ilbijerri Theatre Company as an associate producer.
CL: I think it’s one of the only indigenous theatre companies.
DR: There are three. So there’s Ilbijerri Theatre Company, which is 30 years old. There’s also Yirra Yaakin in Perth, which is a First Nations theatre company. There’s also Moogahlin in Sydney, which is a performing arts company and they’re exploring theatre, music, and dance. They are emerging at the moment. BlakDance is there in Brisbane. They’re not a company, but they produce a lot of First Nations dance.
CL: Supporting and getting them trained, yeah.
DR: Yeah, exactly, and our next generation of producers as well. So our First Nations performing arts sector, our small to medium First Nations performing arts sector is under-resourced, but it is thriving and it is definitely growing year on year for sure.
CL: You’ve just taken or been offered the artistic directorship of Australian Dance Theatre. Congratulations. That’s a huge job.
DR: Thank you. It is huge. Absolutely. That’s not lost on me. Over the last five, six years, I’ve felt this pull and that I could lead a dance company or make my own dance company. In many ways. I just felt that I have the skills and that I would be good at that. I love being in a room with an ensemble of dancers. I’ve worked in enough companies to have realized what works, what doesn’t, and how I would do things. Actually, numerous people sent it to me, that Gary was leaving and that they were going to be starting an application process.
CL: Oh, I see. Because I often wonder how that works.
DR: Yeah. They did a national call, like a press release that Gary was leaving. Then there was a throwaway line at the bottom, I think I remember, saying that a recruitment process will start shortly. I was like, “Oh, okay. I wonder what that is.” That gave me a little bit of time to think on it and to be like, “Oh, could I do that job?” I was well, for so long, I thought I would launch and build another First Nations dance company and base it here in Melbourne because it feels there should be another one. Bangarra shouldn’t be the only First Nations dance company in this country. There should be more.
DR: I felt well positioned to build one here in Melbourne, but then this ADT thing came up and I was like, “Well, actually, this is bigger because this could be an opportunity for me to utilize my First Nations practices and ideologies in a company that has sat here on what is now called Australia for 56 years and really grounded in our country here and now, and bring a diversity of faces and of nationality and of cultural heritage to the stories and to the work.” So I pitched that in a way as my vision for the company. I’d always said all along that I would. I said, “I’ll put my head in and we’ll see how far down the rabbit hole I get,” and it just so happens I got all the way to the end. I feel very, very grateful and so very fortunate to be adding my name next to and below that list of Australian greats.
CL: I read that Nick Hays, who I think is the executive director of ADT, he said that he was just blown away in your interview by your ideas and your vision. Can you tell us where you hope to take the company?
DR: Yeah. Oh, God, I can’t even remember what I said in those interviews. Nick and I have been getting along so well and I’m so looking forward to working with him and also Sarah-Jayne Howard, who is a associate artistic director. I think she’s brilliant. I’ve idolized her for many, many years. I want to really ground and make Australian Dance Theatre, Australian Dance Theatre. I want to spend time touring and investing and engaging with our Australian artistic landscape. I want to ground it in Adelaide, on Kaurna country. I want to open a relationship with the Kaurna traditional owners and community and elders. I just want to bring the idea of storytelling to everybody. This comes off the back of my thinking around proscenium theatres. As a First Nations person and in my cultural beliefs and listening to elders and whatnot and just knowing, we’ve been storytelling for over 75,000 years. We were storytelling before proscenium theatres.
Proscenium theatres came with the boats. Yes, it’s beautiful thing. To see a high quality piece of dance theatre in a proscenium theatre, nothing replaces that. ADT will absolutely be producing high quality theatre, dance theatre in proscenium theatres, but I also want to find ways to take theatre out of that context and tell stories, strip it back as well, this idea of we don’t need the flashlights and the glitter cannons and all the bells and whistles all the time. So I’m really looking forward to all of that, engaging in the set with the South Australian community, with the regions as well, and developing and just working really holistically and honestly for our nation and for our artistic landscape here in Australia.
Just recently finished Maggie Tonkin’s book, Fifty, which she had written when ADT turned 50 six years ago. I read it and I had to put the book down. I was like, “Oh, this is so bizarre and so incredible that she was already, 56 years ago, doing and exploring our landscape, our Australian landscape, how iconic it is exploring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ideas. She was using projections. She was ahead of her time in a lot of her work. So I’m really looking forward to carrying on that legacy.
CL: It’s quite incredible that Elizabeth got you into dance, and now you are-
DR: It’s amazing, isn’t it?
CL: Yeah. You’re going to-
DR: I know.
CL: . . . continue her legacy.
DR: I’ve remember calling her every now and then over the last couple of years, we had touched base. I remember calling her because Nick had called and said, “Look, I just spoke to Elizabeth. She knows to expect a call from the next artistic director. I haven’t told her who it is, but I thought you should do that.” I called and I said, “Hello.” I said, “Hi, Elizabeth.” She said, “Hello. Who’s this?” I said, “Oh, it’s Daniel Riley.” And she paused. I could hear her smile in a way, which is just a really strange thing to say, but I could hear her smile. She said, “And why is it you’re calling?” And I told her and she was just blown away. She’s just, “Danny, you’ve made my day, month, week, and year.” She was so thrilled and she was proud and she was excited. So I’m really looking forward to when all of this Covid is done, when I get back to Canberra next to see family, I want to go out.
Because she lives just outside Canberra at her dance company called Mirramu, which is out on Lake George. So I will definitely want to sit down with Elizabeth and pick her brain too of all of the early works that she made.
CL: You are the first First Nations man to run a non-indigenous company. We’ve touched on it a bit, but in a way, it’s also a shame that this is the first. It’s shocking that you are the first and we’re in 2021.
DR: Absolutely. Look, there’s a lot about our industry that is shocking, but that is not shocking at the same time. But also not arts company either. I think I’m the first First Nations to lead a dance company. Wesley Enoch ran QTC for many years. I just like to make sure that I give him that prop because Wesley’s an elder of mine and I’ve huge amount of love and respect for him. But in terms of the dance world, yeah, I think that’s the case. Like I’ve said in a couple of interviews, I think what I’m looking forward to is the day that this happens again that it’s not shocking and then it’s not a first and that it’s not the reason we’re celebrating. It’s that, “Wow. That’s great. Oh, and I happened to be First Nations Australian.” That’s what I’m looking forward to. I’m hoping that this is the beginning of that.
CL: Yeah. That it’s not a headline, that that’s just actually part of the norm.
DR: No. That it’s just part of the norm, exactly right. Because it is by having a First Nations person leading that company that is our country. That is and it should be the diversity, especially of our artistic nation and our artistic voices too. It can only be a good thing to shine light on that.
CL: Just to end, I just want to ask what you would say to First Nations dances and maybe even boys in particular who there’s still bullying in, I suppose, the training and the dance classes around this country. What would you say to them?
DR: We gain nothing from being what other people want us to be, but we have everything to gain if we are true to ourselves and true to our own vision and our own goals. Don’t let people tell you what you can’t do. I’ve had that too many times in my career. It’s better to walk away from the situations and just know that you’ll get to where you want to be and surround yourself with the right people. For me, getting this role is yes, it is my dream, but it’s so much bigger than just me. Actually, this is a role for that next generation to carve pathways, that if I can carve and swim upstream and get to where I want it to be, then I really believe anyone can. Especially for young, Black fellows and young First Nations artists. I lead. I’m also a staff member at VCA. So I’m the first First Nations appointment to the dance staff at the VCA here in Melbourne where I lecture in contemporary.
CL: How is that possible? You’re the first First Nations dance teacher at VCA.
DR: Yeah, to their staff. Not just teacher, but appointed to staff. I lead a program there, which is a First Nations mentoring program. We have three First Nations students at the VCA at the moment. With this program, we’re hoping to build on that number. This program is all about supporting students at the VCA culturally so they don’t have to feel they leave their culture at the door when they’re going into ballet or into contemporary. Actually, it makes you a richer dancer by being strong in your cultural identity. That’s a program I’m really excited about. Why I mentioned that is because I’ve been talking to the students who I have, the three of them, three incredible movers, strong and proud of their culture. When I told them that I got this job, first, they were shocked.
DR: Yeah, absolutely.
CL: In like, “You’re not ready for that” or like blown away because you’re the first First Nations man.
DR: Blown away that I was now an artistic director and because of my cultural background, that they were just really like, “Wow.” I was like, “And I just wanted you to know that this is the reason why we need to be taking up space, that you can do whatever it is you want.”
CL: If you can see it, you can do it, right?
DR: Yeah. In many ways, for sure. For me, I just hope that me getting into this role inspires a lot of other First Nations artists and young dancers, especially boys and girls, that they can just aim, aim for it and just push for it, believe in that. Also, it takes a community to everything that we do. Like I said before, surround yourself with the right people who believe in you and your vision and your ideas, and it’s possible.
CL: Thank you so much Daniel. It’s just been incredible to talk to you today.
DR: Thank you so much. It was a joy.
Since we spoke, Daniel continues to build and develop his plans for ADT, along with moving his family to Adelaide. For ADT updates and tickets, you can find them on Instagram @ausdancetheatre or head to adt.org.au. To continue to follow Daniel’s life and adventures, you’ll find him on Instagram @danieljriley86. Daniel and I recorded remotely, with Daniel dialing in from Melbourne, the land of the Kulin Nations to which we pay our greatest respects. On the next episode, you’ll hear from Alice Topp.
Your host and producer is me, Claudia Lawson, additional production by Penelope Ford, with editing and sound production by Martin Peralta. And for the latest in all things dance, head to fjordreview.com.