Lajamanu Community Residency 1990


Lajamanu residency and tours

A Brown's Mart Community Arts project with the Lajamanu Community. Two of the key artists being Tim Newth and Sarah Calver, this three month residency firmly established their relationship with the community.

The final performance was presented in the Lajamanu Community, at Barunga Sports festival, Bagot Reserve and NAIDOC Ball - Darwin, Yuendumu, Alice Springs, Willowra, and Ti-Tree.

Creative Personnel

Choreographer: Sarah Calver
Visual Artist: Tim Newth
Circus Skills: Robyn Laurie
Composer: Nick Krieg

Brendan Simons, Clive Liebman, Dwayne Jungarrayi Gibson, Edith Nangala Hargraves, Essau P, Kerry-Anne Nampijinpa Sampson, Lennox  Japangardi Johnson, Philomena Nampijinpa Burns, Sharon Nakamarra Rockman, Zac Jakamarra Patterson 

Report from choreographer - Sarah Calver

The 1989 Lajamanu project marked the beginning of things to come. It acted as a role model for other communities and enabled people within Lajamanu to understand us as artists and the processes involved in projects like this. As a result the 1990 project had a different starting point and the support, understanding, and input from the community itself was much more noticeable and welcome.

The first block of our residency was spent researching ideas, images and stories for the project as well as offering workshops in a variety of areas: dance, creative movement, circus and acrobatic skills. These initial workshops were offered to each class within the school and also extended to community groups after school hours.

With the prospect of performing at the 1990 Barunga Sports and Cultural Festival only three weeks after our project commenced, rehearsals re-working pieces of the 1989 project were also scheduled into our timetable. The three pieces chosen were:  the Girls’ Dance - Mountain O’ Things, the African Dance and the Rap - an extended version with acrobatic routines integrated with dance.

The workshops were shared between myself and co-worker Robyn Laurie and took on one of the following formats:

  • Pure dance/movement workshops
  • Straight Acrobatic/circus skills workshop
  • A split workshop: half dance and second half acrobatics

The performance group also experienced the above workshops, but as Barunga drew nearer more emphasis was put specifically on the performance material. Originally we had thought that Barunga would not take the amount of focus that it ended up taking, but it was a focus for the whole community so in many ways it was a natural thing to do.

Our after school community groups ceased their workshops prior to the festival as more and more time was spent practicing sports: football for the men, and basketball for the women. The older women’s traditional dance group also practiced every evening while others put time into their paintings and craftwork. It was a busy time for all, including the North Tanami Band which would be opening the Festival.

Regular correspondence with the organisers of the festival enthused everyone and receiving confirmation that we were written into the program gave an extra boost to our dance group. The community performance prior to our departure for Barunga was exceptional and the crowd really showed their support and happiness through their responses. The kids gave out a lot of energy, projection, and pride that night, and responded to the audiences reaction by doing an encore. Once again this group of talented youth showed us how to do it well! In front of an audience, comprised mainly of family and friends, this group really comes alive and any pizzazz that was lacking during rehearsal times certainly oozed out and captivated their audience during this performance.

The trip to Barunga was long but we were all anxious and excited at the thought of the next few days so this time for thinking/reflecting was appreciated. We set up camp near the older women and settled in for a good night’s sleep as we were due to perform twice the following day.

Barunga was truly a festival this year with up to 3,000 people attending. People from all over the NT were there and the exposure our dance group got was overwhelming - not to mention positive feedback and applause the group received after each show. It was a lot of work but a lot of fun was had and each performance meant a lot to the group. Family members present at the festival gave a lot of support and acknowledgment to the group for all their efforts.

A lot of organisations and other communities were able to see the work the kids performed and a lot of interest in work similar to this arose. The NAIDOC (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee) organisers were so impressed we were approached to perform at the 1990 NAIDOC Festival in Darwin.

The dance group, like the Lajamanu community, were very proud of the overall achievements at the festival and the trip home was one of pleasant exhaustion.

Once back in Lajamanu the main focus of our work was the project to be and the following two weeks of workshops were dedicated to mainly acrobatics and circus skills. In no time at all a group of boys mastered the unicycles and we selected a group of 20 kids to work with every day - the final selection of our touring group would come out of this group.

The June/July holiday break saw us all departing to go our separate ways for two to three weeks. I came back to Darwin to catch up on administration work in the office and to settle in a guest artist prior to her residency.

It was strange jumping straight back into work in Darwin - I felt torn between my method/way of working in Lajamanu and the way I was used to working in Darwin. For some time my work, the people and places in and around Darin, seemed alien to me and I missed the spaciousness of the desert and the smiling faces of its people.

However, time in the ‘city’ flew by and in no time at all I was back amidst the community way of living. With only 4.5 weeks before our scheduled tour our focus and energy became more and more consistent with the development of ‘the show’.

Days out hunting with the women for goanna led to the development of a hunting dance I choreographed with the girls using sticks which led into a stick dance with the boys into a Papua New Guinea stick dance and finishing with a Filipino stick rhythm dance. The traditional owner of the goanna dreaming dance was invited, to see that I had not done the wrong thing, so to speak. Gladys Napangardi (my skin mother), didn’t seem bothered by any aspect of the dance, so it remained as I had choreographed it. The rest of the show was a culmination of our work and was as follows;

  • The song “Home Sweet Home” by the North Tanami Band opened the show
  • A variation of the girls’ hunting dance to music composed by Nick Krieg and set to movement of Tim’s goanna puppet
  • The girls’ Goanna dance
  • The boys’ stick dance which included elements of modern dance, rhythm work, different uses of the stick, African Dance and karate sequences. This led into the Papua New Guinea stick dance with everyone ending with the Filipino rhythm dance where musician Nick created a percussive orchestra with those in the troupe not dancing
  • The unicycle sequence
  • The girls’ dance - a modern dance extending on skills learnt the previous year, exploring dynamics and sequences created by the girls
  • The boys’ acrobatic routine leading into the crash mat routine with everyone
  • Snoring routine
  • The wrestler
  • Juggling routine
  • Extended version of the rap including everyone
  • Finale - was carrying off the goanna.

This year’s program was seen as a development on last year’s and a lot of people were once again impressed by the skills learnt and performed. The group’s confidence and the dynamics of the various acts became more concrete as time went by.

The first tour to the Katherine and Darwin region was very successful and the NAIDOC performances in Darwin were truly inspirational to us, the artists, and the various audiences.

Performing at Bagot reserve was definitely our best show and the warmth and excitement of the audience fed the dance troupe and new heights in some of the acts were definitely reached. The NAIDOC Ball was at first a bit of a worry to us all - here we were straight from our Bagot performance with no time to clean ourselves up, surrounded by people in ball gowns and tuxedos. It was a very alien atmosphere to members of our troupe and everyone felt a little nervous and very self-conscious as we were ushered to a table in the corner. However, as the night went on we all relaxed and the troupe performed their pieces extremely well considering the small space provided. Our table of adult members/helpers moved to a table in front of the stage and soon livened up the ball. The kids were excited in this new environment now that they had ‘done their thing’ and waited eagerly for Blakbella Mujik (a band from Beswick) to play. The band’s beat soon had the kids up dancing and it was funny to see the reaction they caused - the eyes of those at the ball were almost popping out of their heads. The girls with their sexy dancing and the boys with their rhythmic steps and shoulder movements took over the dance floor and gave a floor show rarely seen by city people.

The ball was definitely a social highlight for the Lajamanu mob and became more interesting as the dance floor became shared by ladies in gowns and men in their tuxedos amidst our troupe still dressed in our day gear - the contrast added to the atmosphere and the exchange between people on the dance floor was unique and exciting. A lot of fun was had by all and I think our troupe helped to make NAIDOC Ball a happening event. We all slept well that night and had lots of good memories to reflect on in the days to follow.

With a strong sense of achievement from our first tour, the need to perform to other Warlpiri communities and the central region led to the development of a second tour.

This had originally been part of our first tour but due to mechanical problems with the school bus we had to cancel that section of the tour. Letters of support for the second tour emphasised the need to visit these areas so with the support of the Lajamanu Community Council and school we organised for the second tour to go ahead in October.

Returning to Lajamanu in October I felt once again at home and it was a good feeling to be back amongst people that reflected everything around them. The heat had become more intense due to the change in seasons and the politics of the community were still unsettled but everyone was pleased to see us back. Unfortunately due to ‘business’ and other family matters not all of our troupe were available for the tour and at first that disappointed not only us but the rest of the troupe. However, at the end of our rehearsal week the group had started to feel whole again and the gaps created by our missing members filled in and the performance began to take shape again.

It was hot work but once again the group was fairly dedicated and I knew inside that the best was yet to come - the show always comes alive in front of an audience. On the Saturday we departed for Yuendumu. Unlike other tours our first show did lack its usual pizzazz but those who were seeing it for the first time didn’t seem to notice.

We then headed on down the corrugated track to Alice Springs - this 3.5 hour trip turned into a marathon 6 hour trip due to mechanical problems with the bus! However, we reached our destination and were shown to our camping area at Yirara College - in no time at all we had a fire going and the Yapa women with us were soon busy cooking the goannas we managed to get along the way.

It was exciting driving in the bus and suddenly coming to a halt if someone saw a goanna - we would all give chase and then having followed it to its hole one of the women would start digging. We also stopped for bush tucker and often the bus would look more like a nursery inside than a vehicle full of passengers. It all added to the journey and once again each trip was unique in its own way.

The three shows in Alice Springs were great and any spare time we had was spent shopping which, like other times, was a fun experience. We were then on our way to Willowra - ‘Ku-ku Land’ to our mob and anything that happened out of the ordinary whilst on our journey confirmed that this was ‘Ku-Ku” country (ghost/monster/boogie monster country).

Willowra had been a wonderful experience the year prior but this year relationships between the two Warlpiri communities seemed estranged and trouble came of it. Unfortunately there was little anyone could do as it was a tribal fight that had not been finished but memories of trying to take a dance warm-up amidst screams of women with their fighting sticks are quite mixed - both funny and serious aspects are quite vivid and I feel words could not do justice to the scene that surrounded and invaded us.  The performance there was a mixed one and I cannot blame the troupe for being unsettled at the start - I think we all did! As soon as the show was finished everyone was eager to leave.

Except for the case of the missing car keys we would have achieved our flight. After two hours of thoroughly searching our own private bags as well as unloading and reloading the truck we decided the only option was to ‘hot-wire’ the truck. It all added to the atmosphere created that day and we all sighed with relief when we finally left. Due to one of the women being hurt we had to head straight to the Tennant Creek Hospital so our performance at Ti-Tree and Ali-Curung were unfortunately cancelled due to circumstances beyond our control.

Our homeward journey was a long one but as usual an interesting one as Japangardi (my skin uncle and driver of the school bus) told us stories of the land and special gifts/dreamings that his family had. He spoke of his respect - for the land and how one should travel through the land that is not of their people but of other clans. Like Japangardi his words had true meaning and his faith in mankind is unquestionable. The Yapa adults on tour with us were an exceptional help and contributed in many ways - it made our time on the road not only easier but happier and we all gained from our experiences and time together.

The development on last year’s project was evident throughout our residency. I feel the importance of this kind of project and its need for further continual development is too often overlooked by the people who live only on cities where there is always an opportunity to develop skills through the arts.

The Lajamanu people already talk of being able to eventually create their own performances for tour and that is the main aim of extending these projects each year. I hope the people continue to believe in the strength these performances instil not only amongst Warlpiri people but also to others living in the NT.

The enthusiasm, dedication and support of the Lajamanu people is positive and I feel assured that in the years to come this type of performance will be 100% Warlpiri as they have shown me and others what is possible - and being a strong people there will be no stopping them. I am more than proud to be associated with this desert tribe and will always feel a special warmth in my heart for Lajamanu - its land and its people.


Dance Development Office: Sarah Calver

[Under Brown’s Mart Community Arts – Executive Officer Ken Conway]



Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that the following pages, photographs and videos may contain images, voices, and names of deceased persons.

Further Reading

A short history of the long-term relationship between Lajamanu and Tracks Dance Company

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