The NAIDOC 2019 Artist of the Year was told by her teacher at a very young age, she had talent. The moment of affirmation delighted the little girl, who would grow to become one of Bangarra Dance Theatre's finest performing artists, enjoying a career that spanned twenty years and saw her dance nationally and internationally.
Back in her childhood, drawing was the first love of award winning Elma Gada Kris.
"I would draw Michael Jackson, my girls room was full of Michael Jackson!" Elma reminisced in her interview with NITV.
As time passed dancing, became Elma's passion. Bangarra's artistic director Stephen Page described Elma's contribution as “vital within Bangarra’s story and evolution. Over the past twenty years, she has been a unique creative collaborator, a source of wisdom and a valued friend to me. She has been instrumental in shaping and bringing Torres Strait Islander stories to the stage. I have such enormous respect for Elma – she is a rare artist and leaves an incredible cultural legacy for the next generation to carry forward."
Born and raised on Waiben, the traditional name of Thursday Island in the Torres Strait, Elma is a descendant of the Wagadagam, Kaurareg, Sipingur, Gebbara, Kai Dangal Buai of the Western and Central Islands of the Torres Strait.
The NAIDOC Award for Artist of the Year recognises Elma as an accomplished dancer, choreographer, teacher and collaborator but as a young woman she had a few hurdles to leap over before attaining the artistic freedom she cherishes now.
When Elma wanted to go to follow her dreams and leave Thursday Island for a performing arts school on the mainland, she needed her parents permission.
"My mum was really strict, I kept asking Mum, [she said] no, so I had to ask Dad, because I wanted this course in Cairns. Dad said 'Its alright my girl, you can go but the answer is there with Mum'."
When Elma mother finally granted permission, she remembers saying "Thank God".
Joining Bangarra has had a huge impact on Elma, as she says, "I was not only representing Torres Strait Islander, I was representing all the Aboriginal people as well. I always think how important our story is".
Stretching her repertoire from performing to choreography, Elma drew on her heritage and fond memories of home.
"I remember that time when I go fishing, the shift, change of colour, so all the gestures I show through the rhythm, dance, because I've been inspired by my culture.
"So that’s my story, that I created about the land, the sea and the sky and how it all change."
In appreciation of Elma’s cultural and artistic talents, the industry and her community have recognised her efforts with prestigious awards and nominations, including a 2007 Deadly Award for Dancer of the Year, 2012 Dance Australia’s CRITICS SURVEY for Best New Work, Walkabout, 2016 Australian Dance Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Dancer. In 2017 Elma was nominated for the Helpmann Award and in 2018 she was nominated for an Australian Dance Award, for her role in Bennelong.
Beyond the arts, Elma has a keen interest in health, promoting healthy lifestyle practices in nutrition, strength and physicality and mental health stamina.
At the end of 2018, Elma retired as a permanent member of the Bangarra dance ensemble, although she wont be leaving the Bangarra family altogether says Stephen Page, "I look forward to this new chapter and the possibilities it brings for us to work together in new ways.”
For Elma, Torres Strait Island culture is always present in every aspect of her life and work. Her journey to this place of artistic confidence comes from a deep humility practiced at a young age, when Elma deliberately "kept everything to myself, the talent I had".
"I take my culture really seriously, I embrace it because I need it."
Watch is Elma's acceptance speech.
The SBS network is celebrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and recognising the achievements of our First Peoples throughout National NAIDOC Week (7-14 July). For programs, movies, articles and info, go here.
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