There was a time when 35-year-old Deborah Brown would have scoffed at the thought of winning a Helpmann Award for her dancing.
In fact, she would have scoffed at the idea of having a career in dance at all.
“My mum got me into ballet and tap classes after school when I was growing up in Brisbane, but I never really thought I could make something of it,” she says.
“I was the runt of the dance school litter.”
Despite dance being one of her biggest passions, Deborah was so convinced she couldn’t make it as a dancer, she tried hard to succeed in other areas.
“It seemed so unlikely, but I knew I wanted to be a performer, so I thought: ‘I’ll try and get into acting.’ Acting didn’t mean I had to have a 180 degree turnout or bring my leg up to my ear.”
But acting never quite worked out, and she ended up on a seven-year hiatus from performing, waiting tables and making coffees instead. And it might have stayed that way if she hadn’t seen an ad in the paper for auditions at Bangarra Dance Theatre, the Indigenous contemporary dance company based at Walsh Bay, eleven years ago.
Long story short, Deborah won a place in the company and has gone from strength to strength ever since, to the point where last month’s prestigious Helpmann Awards at the Sydney Opera House saw her go home with the gong for Best Female Dancer in a Dance or Physical Theatre Work for her performance in Terrain.
It could be argued that the upward trajectory of Deborah’s confidence, talents and recognition mirrors that of Bangarra itself.
In 1989, Bangarra, which means “to make fire” in the Wiradjuri language, was founded as a modest outlet for the expression of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance. Today, it is an Indigenous cultural giant, strutting the stages of the world, collecting awards and accolades as it goes.
Deborah’s award is just one of four awards the dance company has picked up in recent days. Terrain, choreographed by Frances Rings, also received a Helpmann for Best Ballet or Dance Work; on August 1, Bangarra was awarded the inaugural Australian Art in Asia Award in the Dance category for Spirit and its recent tours to Mongolia, Thailand and Vietnam; and on August 5, Bangarra’s Shane Carroll was honoured with a Services to Dance Award for his role in developing Bangarra’s youth program.
Bangarra Artistic Director Stephen Page says: “These awards are a wonderful affirmation for the company that we are achieving artistic excellence while we pursue the equally important role of building connections.
“Whether Bangarra is performing on stage at the Sydney Opera House or a theatre in regional Victoria, running an indigenous youth workshop in remote NSW or presenting a performance for brand new audiences in Vietnam, the high quality of our work is what helps create meaningful engagement.”
Both Deborah and Bangarra are taking their awards in their stride – there’s not much time for reflection, it’s on with the show, with the new production Kinship kicking off in Victoria this week.
“I get to see places all over the country and all over the world, and it’s amazing,” says Deborah. “From Mer Island in the Torres Strait, where my ancestors are from, where we performed on a little bamboo set using the headlights of cars to light the show, to the Sadler’s Well Theatre in London and the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.
“Awards are great but taking ancient stories and putting them on a modern platform for a diverse group of people … that’s the best reward.”