In 1994, Ochres performer Jasmin Sheppard was an 11-year-old like most others. A lover of dance from an early age, she was busy sifting her way through the trials and tribulations of school and adolescence.
The now renowned Indigenous dancer hadn’t yet started formal dance training and she had never seen a live show put on by her future employer, Bangarra Dance Theatre. “But I knew about the company and I loved them,” she explains.
Unbeknown to Sheppard, a watershed moment for Indigenous dance, Australian culture and her own life was in the works. The ground-breaking production, Ochres, was being staged by Bangarra, bringing the company widespread national and international attention.
“It was the first time Australia had really seen such distinct cultural content on a public stage and be really mesmerised by it in such a way that made the show Ochres so popular.”
“Ochres really put Bangarra on the map,” says Sheppard. “It was the first time Australia had really seen such distinct cultural content on a public stage and be really mesmerised by it in such a way that made the show Ochres so popular.”
The show, which blends traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture with contemporary movement, boasted sold-out performances across Australia and around the world. It would also establish Bangarra as an important voice in the country’s cultural landscape and set the scene for Sheppard’s dance career.
The first thing I learned as part of Bangarra repertoire was Ochres,” she says. “It’s the benchmark of being a Bangarra dancer.”
Fast forward eight years and the 19-year-old Shepherd got to audition for the troupe with a dance from the 'white' section of the show. Unfortunately, Sheppard recalls, she didn’t make the cut.
“The year after that, I decided ‘this is what I definitely wanted to do’. I wanted to dance for Bangarra! So I moved to Sydney [from Gosford] because I wanted to train further. I trained at NAISDA for two more years and then I freelanced for one year.”
Shepherd’s second chance to live out her dream arrived in 2006. This time around, she was successful.
“I had never bought a bottle of champagne before then but that night, I did,” she says.
“It was a pretty amazing feeling to be accepted. I had never felt that way before in my life. It was really ‘it’: I was living the pipedream that I had my whole life.”
This year, Ochres turns 21. To celebrate the milestone, Bangarra will stage the classic at Sydney’s Carriageworks for whole season, opening on Friday 27 November. And, in a career move that will fulfil Sheppard’s teen ambition, she will dance in both the 'yellow' and 'white' sections of the show.
“It feels like I’ve come full circle, with white being the first piece I ever learned for that first Bangarra audition. And now, I am able to perform it in its entirety on stage with other dancers. That’s very special.”
Old show, new performance
The 2015 Ochres, just like the original, will fuse contemporary and traditional dance in four parts – yellow, black, red and white. Powerful, sensual and grounded – each section is a story within itself and derived from the land on which we stand.
Sheppard explains the white section as being about spirit and “what lingers when the body is gone” while yellow captures “the beautiful feminine quality of the earth”.
The story will be the same as the 1994 version, says Sheppard, but it will be performed by new dancers offering a “different flavor”.
Bangarra’s artistic director, Stephen Page, also emphasises that the 2015 interpretation will put a modern twist on classic moves.
“Bangarra has grown so much since Ochres was first staged in 1994,” explains Page.
“An array of artists have worked on this production over the years, and all of them, along with our audiences, have experienced the sacred meaning of this show.
“Our incredible dance artists and creative team, including David Page on the score, Djakapurra Munyarryun as cultural consultant, Jacob Nash on sets and Jennifer Irwin on costumes, will bring a renewed depth to this re-imagining, while honouring the meaning and spirit of the original.”
"For me, it’s a chance to explore the beautiful femininity of Mother Earth and find strength within that."
No doubt Ochres holds a special place in Sheppard’s heart given her career journey to-date. But she says, the show is of a great cultural significance to her also, with Aboriginal roots linking her to the Tagalaka and Kurtijar Peoples from Normanton and Croydon in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Sheppard also has Chinese, Torres Strait, Russian and Jewish blood.
“There’s a connection to culture when you ‘paint up’ which we do for the show with Ochre from Arnhem Land…For me, it’s a chance to explore the beautiful femininity of Mother Earth and find strength within that.
“I think Ochres is the type of show that will reach a lot of people. It is spiritual. It is emotional.
“It’s very accessible to all people and dance fans from all cultures…And it will help you to connect back to the spirit that’s in all of us.”