Behind the scenes: The journey of Preparing Ground

Behind the scenes: The journey of Preparing Ground

Nurturing land for future survival through contemporary dance and community connection.

Earlier this year, HOTA hosted the Preparing Ground creative team for a three-week creative development that wrapped up with an industry work-in-progress showing.

Preparing Ground is an independent contemporary dance project being led by three leading First Nations choreographers, Marilyn Miller, Jasmin Sheppard and Katina Olsen - who's a proud Wakka Wakka Kombumerri artist - and produced by BlakDance.

We caught up with Katina to chat about Preparing Ground and their time at HOTA.

You’ve been working on Preparing Ground since 2021. What’s the project about? What has the research and development stage looked like? 

Preparing Ground is a contemporary dance work about preparing land for our future survival. It references the ongoing impacts of colonisation and platforms the incredible work that our communities are doing to rise above adversity to look after Country, Culture and each other for years to come.

In 2021 Marilyn, Jasmin and myself spent a week each in research on our ancestral Countries (Kukuyalanji, Tagalaka and Wakka Wakka), we then revisited our Country and communities over 2022 and 2023 and I was also able to do a few visits to Kombumerri Country here on the Gold Coast too. It was important for us to take this time to listen to Country, our Elders and our communities about the needs of our communities, look deeper into what’s at risk and witness the incredible work our communities are doing from community work, language revival and landcare. We began in studio creative development in 2021 at Bulmba-ja, Cairns and continued through 2022 at the Brisbane Powerhouse and Judith Wright Arts Centre. This year we each spent one week in an individual micro development working on choreography to bring into our last creative development in October this year on Kombumerri Country at HOTA.

How did you spend the three weeks in creative development at HOTA? 

First we set up the space at HOTA so we could link up online with our co-director Jasmin Sheppard in Wyong who'd just recently had her second baby, this continues our Preparing Ground methodology of inclusion and remote collaboration. All throughout the developments of Preparing Ground, we've made sure we sought ways to support each other and our communities as we make our work. Then we began by yarning with some of my family (Uncle John Graham, Clinton Brewer and Max Dillon) about Kombumerri Country and what we’re doing with Preparing Ground. During each creative development, we always begin by spending time with Elders or Traditional Owners of the land we’re creating on before we begin (BlakDance’s Elder in Residence model), this helps us situate ourselves on Country, honours all of our protocol and ensures Cultural safety when making our work.

Our next steps as co-directors was to check in about all the work we've created until now, what we’d like to continue with from before and see what’s new from each other’s micro developments. We watched a lot of prior work on video and started recapping everything in our bodies. By week two we were well into crafting the sections, merging some together, trying out different orders of the sections and yarning about what it all means with our dramaturg Victoria Hunt. Then by week three we had our collaborators Sam James and Sam Pankhurst in the room with us to continue working on how the projection design and sound design folds into the work. Then in our final days we finished with a showing of our work and spent the next day planning out what we need to do to take the work to premiere and beyond. 

When Preparing Ground tours as a performance, the project will engage with communities on whose Country a presentation venue resides, heading beyond the walls of the theatre. Can you tell us about that part of the project? 

Yes absolutely. Preparing Ground has always envisioned to create actions that invite audiences of our show to do the work that the dance work speaks to. We connect with and collaborate with the local Elders, Traditional Custodians and the venues/presenters of the land we’re creating or presenting Preparing Ground on to create a social impact activity that accompanies the work. Depending on the needs of that specific Country, for example this could look like taking part in landcare and maintenance activities, encouraging locals to volunteer as wildlife carers or maybe it’s just a portion of ticket sales of Preparing Ground go toward supporting activities like this.

In our final week of development we took a visit with some invited guests to Guanaba our Indigenous Protected Area to pilot our Preparing Ground community engagement model. We worked with my cousin Justine Dillon Kombumerri Traditional Owner, Guanaba IPA & Kombumerri ILS Ranger Manager and Ngarang-Wal Gold Coast Aboriginal Association Incorporated to guide us and our guests on Country. We spent the day here in yarns, we learnt about the health of Country and the animals that live there and were taught how the rangers are monitoring and looking after the Borobi (Koalas) in the area. 

When we come to premiere and tour our work there will be activities like these that the audience can join in on so they can take part in caring for Country as their responsibility as well. 

What’s next for Preparing Ground? What’s next for you? 

Preparing Ground will continue to plan our next developments for 2024 to work towards our premiere in 2025 and touring after that. It’s super exciting to get closer to sharing this story and experience with audiences!

Right now I’m working on choreographing another new work called WHITE LIES for GUTS Dance company in Alice Springs. It’s part of Desert Hothouse, a collection of three works by myself, Frankie Snowden and Madeleine Krenek. I’ve got one more week here on Arrernte Country then I’m finally back home to Kabi Kabi Country for a big well-earned rest. Next year is another big year for me, continuing with Preparing Ground, working with the Queensland Ballet on a new work for their Bespoke season, working with Australasian Dance Collective, touring a work with Dance Makers Collective to SA, working with ACPA and choreographing a play amongst other things. It’s huge and quite demanding work, so I’ve gotta take some time to power down so I can come back will full energy to continue sharing story and making dance. 

You can read more about Preparing Ground here.

Images: Preparing Ground creative development 2023 at HOTA. Photo credit: Jade Ellis Photography 

Preparing Ground is produced by BlakDance.  

This development was supported by the Australian Government’s Major Festivals Initiative, managed by the Creative Australia, its arts funding and advisory body, in association with Brisbane Festival and Sydney Festival, and additional project funding from the Creative Australia. It was also supported by the Queensland Government through Arts Queensland, as well as the Council of the City of Gold Coast, HOTA, Home of the Arts, Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) and The Art House Wyong. 

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HOTA proudly acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we are situated, the Kombumerri families of the Yugambeh Language Region. We pay our respects to their Elders past, present and emerging, and recognise their continuing connections to the lands, waters and their extended communities throughout South East Queensland.