• Sani Ray Townson, the extraordinary choreographer behind the Express Yourself dance crew (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Sani Ray speaks with NITV about his leap into the world of dance, the importance of mentoring emerging artists, and the creative challenge of choreographing Express Yourself Season 2.
Rowena Potts

2 Jun 2016 - 12:54 PM  UPDATED 13 Jun 2016 - 10:53 AM

When Sani Ray Townson left his Townsville home to study dance at NAISDA Dance College (National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association) in Sydney - he never imagined he would stay. But one artistic venture led to another.

An accomplished dancer, choreographer and coordinator of the Gondwana Indigenous Children’s Choir, Sani Ray’s most recent project is as choreographer and dancer in the second season of NITV’s comedy show Express Yourself.

A start at Bangarra

“I didn't tell my parents that I was coming to study dance in Sydney. I auditioned, secretively, on the sly, and then the acceptance letter came in the mail. My mom asked me, "What's this?" and I told her.

My parents both said, ‘Why do you want to do dance? It's not a living. You can't make money out of dance.’

I met Stephen [Page] and he asked me to join Bangarra, and that was the nail that closed it. I was just about to go home to Townsville, and he convinced me to stay. I was with Bangarra for six years. It was an amazing company, and they took me to places that I never thought that I'd see.

After Bangarra, I did a collaboration with Sydney Children's Choir, and out of that collaboration came the Gondwana National Indigenous Children's Choir. That's where I am at the present time. I coordinate the choir, and I help bring in Indigenous song. I’m building up the choir’s repertoire of indigenous song and dances. I never thought that I'd be doing that.

I also teach up at NAISDA - Torres Strait Islander technique. I more or less look after the Torres Strait Islander side of things. I make sure that the dances are done correctly, that the songs are being sung correctly, so that they maintain the cultural essence of the Torres Strait.”

Giving back 

Sani finds working with young people immensely rewarding. He loves to watch kids gain confidence in themselves and about the world through the Gondwana choir.

“Some of the kids, the Indigenous kids, they come in and they know nothing about music. They don't know how to read it. Sometimes they don't even know that they can sing.

So when we do these audition processes, when we go into the schools or go out to the communities and bring them in, I say to them, ‘All you can ever do is try. If you take the first initial step and try out, you don't know what's going to happen.’

I'm pushing them to see they can use music as a platform into the arts. And even if it's not into the arts, at least it's something where they can identify with themselves, when it comes to culture. I literally call them my kids. I call them my Black Ducklings and they call me Mother Duck.

I've always said to them, ‘Your dreams will always change. Your goals will always change. Just be ready, go with the flow. You’ll be faced with big challenges, but always take a breath. Always take a breath. Nothing is ever too hard, if you give it a shot. If you don't succeed, then try again. It'll happen, but it won't happen immediately. It'll happen eventually.’

For Sani, mentoring young people in the black arts is vitally important. It is a direct response to the mentoring he identifies as shaping his own career, and the influence of a generation of artists, dancers and performers who came before him.

“There are so many people in this industry that have come from the black arts. When you see the likes of Ernie Dingo, Bob Maza, Justine Saunders, Lillian Crombie … They are massive boulders. Those people were backs for us, you know? They gave us their backs so that we could move forward. I'm going to be doing that one day. People are going to be stepping on my back to move forward.”

Express Yourself

This year, Sani worked with dancer and comic Sean Choolburra, and dancers Medika Thorpe and Darren Compton, to choreograph the dance performances that feature as part of the Express Yourself line-up. Each dance had to complement one of the six original songs that feature in the series, all of which are parodies of well-loved tunes from different artists and eras, with catchy lyrics that incorporate commentary on often serious subjects - but with a humorous spin.

“All the songs are parodies. And parodies are just essential to blackfellas. It’s black humour, Murri humour."

"And all the gestures within the choreography - I’ve deliberately made it so that it’s black gestures that black folk can get.

[With the Express Yourself dances] we had to search for one motif for whatever region that was represented within the lyrics. One motif to represents the whole region, or what's popular in their style of traditional dance. So I thought, I’ll pick this for the Yolngu lot, this for Torres Strait Islander lot, and this for the Western Australian Noongar lot. And it worked!”

Today, Sani successfully navigates the boundary between contemporary dance choreography and the more comedic and playful style of dance featured in the routines he choreographed for Express Yourself. Collaboration, and knowing when to let go and have fun, are part of that process.

“If I have an idea in my head, it’s about getting it out of my head and onto the bodies. If it doesn't work, then you've got to come up with something else.

Choreographers are the best problem-solvers. They are, because if it doesn't work, you work together as a group, and then you figure it out.

With [the Express Yourself] kind of stuff, you can have fun, you can laugh, you can let yourself go. Whereas, what I do with my contemporary stuff… it’s very technical in contemporary dance.

I can now do serious arty-farty stuff, and I can now do comical stuff. And I think you've got to be open to that when you become a choreographer. You don't just do one form of dance. You go through the whole gamut of the arts industry.

When it comes to the creative process, you have to be open. I'm always open to other opinions, other suggestions, and I think, as a choreographer, that's what you have to do. You have to be open to other people's suggestions, and that will create harmony within the whole group.”

Asked for what advice Sani would give to up-and-coming young performers, dancers, artists and comedians with dreams of establishing a career in the industry?

“Don't limit yourself. Do not limit yourself. If you think that you've got it in you to have a go, give it a go. You can only try. Once you try, you can only find out what the outcome is. If it's not successful for you, try again. Don't give up. Keep on trying. If you think that you can get up there, make people laugh, and be on TV, and you want to do it, do it. Don't hold yourself back.”

Watch Express Yourself Season 2 from 9 June, @ 9pm on NITV. Catch up on episodes with SBS On Demand HERE.