Ochre Dance Company Breaking boundaries through movement

Ochre Performing Kaya in Bunbury, Western Australia.
Ochre Performing Kaya in Bunbury, Western Australia. | © Ochre Dance Company

The Ochre Dance Company is unique in its vision. The first of its kind, their aim is to bring together Aboriginal and non–Aboriginal artists from different artistic disciplines, to create beautiful contemporary dance work that concentrates on cross-cultural similarities rather than differences.

The Ochre Dance Company was founded in 2012 by Louise Howden-Smith who had the dream of bringing together a diverse group of artists to create innovative contemporary work inspired by local Indigenous culture. Based in Western Australia on the traditional land of the Noongar people, the company has gone from strength to strength. They are delivering educational programs to remote Indigenous communities and creating works that break boundaries between cultures, all the while paying due respect to the traditional owners of the land on which they dance. 


The Ochre Dance Company seeks to promote connections between artists, audiences and communities through cultural exchange and collaboration. Their vision states that ‘working artistically requires reflection on one’s surroundings, both geographical and cultural’ and they believe that new contemporary aesthetics can be created through this process.
Ochre’s Artistic Director Mark Howett, a vastly accomplished director and lighting designer, was approached to join Ochre by Howden-Smith upon his return to Australia in 2015. After spending ten years living in Germany and working across Europe, he missed his country and was drawn to Ochre’s unique philosophy. He says that Ochre is different to other great Aboriginal dance companies such as Bangarra, who only feature Indigenous performers, in the way that they seek to amalgamate cultural practices. “Ochre uses Noongar dance as the foundation for the work and then engages with other cultures. From that interaction, that encounter, we develop work.”

Ochre's foundation is in traditional Noongar dance. Ochre's foundation is in traditional Noongar dance. | © Ochre Dance Company Howett is expanding on Ochre’s vision of cross-cultural interaction by bringing aspects of European theatre tradition to the company. The biggest addition being the appointment of company Dramaturg Phil Thomson, an expert in cross-cultural dramaturgy. Howett says, “We have a company Dramaturg, in the true German tradition. That came from my ten years of influence working in Germany. The tradition of the Dramaturg has been used a bit here but not to the same extent. Here the director is King, whereas in Germany the Director and the Dramaturg have different responsibilities. The Dramaturg assesses it from an analytical and community point of view. They look at long term planning and the philosophy of the company in general. The Director is specifically looking at the production in terms of its staging, how it works, and how it functions.”
Following this mantra, Kaya was created, Ochre’s most recent work and the first with Howett on board. The ambitious collaborative dance work took a talented and diverse group of artists across rural Western Australia. The project focused on bringing together the styles of different Indigenous dance cultures (Noongar, Wongi and Bundjulung) with Indian, Maori and Western Contemporary dance techniques. The key to the collaboration, according to Howett, was in the discovery of commonalities between movements.

Ochre's Artistic Director Mark Howett. Ochre's Artistic Director Mark Howett. | © Mark Howett “Kaya means ‘hello’ in Noongar, and it was an encounter between the Noongar dancers in the company and the ‘Wadjela’s’, which basically means non – Noongars. From that interaction we’d try to find a way to move the dialogue forward, rather than immediately going for negatives. The way we did that was by finding what was common in the dance.”
The production was choreographed by the performers themselves, and brought together the styles of all the cultures. According to Howett, it was surprisingly simple to discover similarities between the different dance practices. “We had some Indian dancers, Isha Shavani and her brother Tao Issaro, and there were lots of commonalities. For example, throwing sand was a common element in the traditional dances of both those countries.”


Ochre states in their vision that ‘great cultural practice starts with robust and appropriate interaction with local communities’. They believe that educational programs and community engagement are crucial to the development of a company rooted in the traditions of Aboriginal storytelling.
“Also, educational programs are a big area of development for us, because in the curriculum there is supposed to be Aboriginal traditional dance, but there is no one delivering it. We’ve started on the level of going to all the Aboriginal schools and developing that”, so Howett who adds that it’s crucial to maintain these connections: “With all of our workshops and developments with schools, we deliberately go back to the places that we were. We don’t just go into a community and then not look back again, it’s an ongoing relationship.”

Ochre performing Kaya in Perth, Western Australia. Ochre performing Kaya in Perth, Western Australia. | © Ochre Dance Company The process of visiting rural communities to educate has the added benefit of improving the dance practice. For Kaya, the troupe travelled across Western Australia to develop the work, visiting remote Indigenous communities and consulting with Elders. According to Howett, this is a process that is common in Europe, but is fairly new in Australia.
“What happens in the West End, and in Europe, is that they will develop the work regionally for a few reasons. One, is that it improves the local practice. So you engage with people in remote communities, and incorporate that into your work, and two you keep improving your work, because every time you present it, you can make corrections and say that’s not working or that is working and then by the time you bring it into Perth, you’re ready to go.”


Ochre has lofty ambitions for 2017. They will be running Good Little Soldier in July, a deeply personal work for Howett that he first developed in Berlin. “It’s about returned soldiers and how their PTSD is almost given to the family like a disease”.
Ochre will also be workshopping the musical Rodeo Moon by David Milroy, and expanding the Kaya project even further. “We’re continuing the Kaya project with a piece called Sand that will take us to India to explore that commonality even more. We want to take another step rather than just leaving that project behind and saying ‘oh yeah we did that’. We thought ‘can we go another level here?’, so we’re going to do that”, explains Howett.
With all of this work, the aim remains the same. To break boundaries between cultures, respect each other and keep Indigenous dance practice alive. Howett believes in the ability of movement to do this.
“I think that often it’s harder to misinterpret dance than it is with language. When you read the dance form, you read it for what’s there and its physicality: peoples ability to perform those physical feats, and the spacing and the staging. We decided not to make a pre-determined narrative – all the work would come out of the engagement, and in finding the similarities.”