A descendant of the Kalkadoon people, Joshua Pether is a Perth-based indigenous dancer with a disability. He’s ‘tripped the light fantastic’ performing on stages around the world. Working part time as a chemist to fund his creative endeavours, Pether dances, paints and draws and at the age of 30 he has undergone many transformations.
We met when I was recently in Perth for the Dance Week celebrations. Joshua joined me with Jianna Georgiou and another former Link Dance Company member, Catherine Ryan as a choreographic/workshop assistant for the Enter & Exit project with Tracksuit. Joshua and Catherine have since joined the company’s regular weekly program and are developing their work with people with different abilities.
Joshua and I have since worked together again with Dance Integrated Australia for the Beyond Technique Residency. He was selected as one of five artists to work with Elizabeth Ryan to develop new solo material at the Bundanon Trust’s Riversdale property on the South Coast of NSW. We recently caught up for this interview.
You have a very interesting family background. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Yes I suppose I do. My father is part indigenous and my mum is of Scottish / Irish descent. They both met in Mt Isa at a local disco so the story goes. Apparently dad was quite drunk and asked mum out on a date. Mum accepted thinking nothing of it and when the day came around for the date, dad showed up but mum wasn’t ready as she thought that he had forgotten about it. From then on they became quite the couple.
I was born out-of-wedlock so I’m a bastard child (jokes) and there are photos of me at their wedding, I was one at the time. They also tried to elope but were found out at the last minute and both parents flew down to Noosa Heads to join the ‘bridal party’ so to say. Dad grew up on a farm and was a grazier so I spent part of my life on a cattle station 80km away from Mt Isa. I think at the time I never really appreciated the bush as I was always wanting to go into town. As I got older I stayed more at my grand parents place in Mt Isa rather than the property. I sort of regret not appreciating the bush as I sort of miss that now. I still remember some of those images and the country out there is absolutely stunning.
Over the years they had three other children, both boys, so I am the oldest in our family. Presently two of my brothers are over in Melbourne at the moment and the other one I think is in Queensland, he’s a bit transient so I never know where he is. The second oldest has just had his first baby, a boy, and named him Sonny.
Both my parents have split up. Mum lives in Brisbane and dad has remarried and lives on a property between Barcaldine and Aramac out towards Longreach. From my fathers second marriage I now have two adopted siblings both a boy and girl and the boy has shown interest in dance so there may be another dancer in the family.
What was your childhood like?
As I mentioned before I grew up for half of my life on a cattle station outside Mt Isa. My other part of my life was spent in Mt Isa itself. If I was to describe my childhood I would have to say it was mixed both emotionally and financially.
On one end of the spectrum my mother’s part of the family was quite well off. I remember most Christmas’s I got pretty much what I asked for and then some. My grandparents were part of the elite society of Mt Isa (if Mt Isa had such a thing). My grandfather was the manager of the local paper and my grandmother did voluntary work. Some would say we were spoilt and looking back on that I tend to agree. On the other end of the spectrum my dad’s side of the family were quite poor. Dad took home very little at the end of each month and worked for most of the time to keep the family out of debt. However I never really got to see much of this and pretty much was never exposed to any poverty of any sort that I can remember.
If I would have to say what affected me most during my childhood I would have to say my school life. As the only boy who danced in a small country town I pretty much had a target on me from primary school through to the middle of high school. Growing up wasn’t exactly fun and games and I never really had many friends, except for a few that I made through high school. I try to keep in touch with some of them through Facebook. It was only when I left Mt Isa and started afresh at a new high school that I managed to get some of the most amazing friends. Unfortunately a lot of us haven’t managed to keep in touch much but I still remember those years fondly and am thankful I met those people when I did in my life.
Dance was something that started at a very early age for you and then you took off in another direction. How did that come about?
I remember the first time I danced. It was in front of my mother and my grandparents. It involved a chux and the theme song to the Never Ending Story. The rest I will leave to your imagination. Needless to say, mum enrolled me in ballet class the next week I think.
At first dance was just something to do, it wasn’t until later that I got serious about it when one of my examiners saw I had potential. From then I went to normal class as well as private lessons on the weekend. I started to get more confident with dance and wanted to pursue it as a career. However the whole thing at school became too much. Being a small country town, word can spread easily. Not only did kids in my school know I danced but soon other kids in neighbouring schools did too. The school I went to was a private school so bullying wasn’t tolerated to a certain extent. However the other schools were state schools and some of the roughest kids came from out of those schools.
Me being thin and small didn’t stand a chance to half of them and inevitably I had to make the decision to leave dance. I still cower to this day if someone makes any sudden movements in front of me or lays their hand on me forcefully. If it had been a different era or time I think things would have worked out differently. With programs such ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ on TV it is now more acceptable and enviable in some circumstances for boys to take up dance. When I grew up there wasn’t anything like that, so nothing really to let society know it is ok that boys can dance.
With that part of life over, for now, I began to question what I would do as a career. I still to this day do not know why I chose to do pharmacy. I was more the artistic type painting, drawing, dancing etc, never really science or mathematically inclined. In fact if I remember correctly I used to have to count on my fingers to add up and probably didn’t even know what 1 + 1 added up to. Why I chose pharmacy I have no idea. I think it sounded interesting. Anyway so I started to head in that direction.
I remember at high school in Mt Isa the teachers never thought I would become a pharmacist. They said I wasn’t cut out for the profession. When I moved to the Sunshine Coast I repeated Year 10 again and took all maths and science based subjects. So I went from basic Maths to solving quadratic equations. My final result in Year 10 for Maths B as it was known was an A-. I was pretty stoked with that result. At the end of high school I graduated and was accepted into the Pharmacy course at the University of Queensland.
Over the course of my years at high school and University I trained my brain to think more mathematical and ignored the artistic side completely. When I look back at it, I made things really hard for myself as I wasn’t necessarily gifted in those areas. It was like I went into preservation mode from all the trauma I experienced as a child to shut of that side of my life and brain completely. However dance is a cruel mistress and never leaves you and I found myself coming back to it.
What brought you back to dance?
I don’t think there was any real defining moment in my life that made me want to dance again. I think I’d pretty much given up hope on ever returning to it due to my operation I had when I was younger to correct Scoliosis. However I remember I was working continuously pretty much all day of the week at some point and realised there has to be more to life than this. I began to research dance schools in Brisbane and came up with Mad Dance located at the time in West End.
I went to my first ballet class in over ten years and just started off doing one day a week. Pretty soon that escalated to two classes a week and then eventually five days a week. I remember I told my boss that I was having to give up most of my week days shifts at night and just keep my weekend shifts instead. Theoretically I should have been fired but my boss was very understanding and let me pursue my dream.
I remember when I first started dancing again I was pretty much awful. Especially when I got to the more advanced levels. It took me ages to work out how to do a chasse part de borre grande jete. However I persevered and managed to finally figure out that its more the timing of the way you do it rather than the steps. Up to that point I had only done ballet classes since I’d started dance again. I started my first contemporary class about a year afterwards. I remember I had no idea what I was doing but it made more sense to me than any other form of dance I had tried up to that point. I felt there was some sort of innate ability inside me that I hadn’t discovered yet when I did contemporary. So I pursued this feeling and began to look at ways of doing this more professionally.
I auditioned and managed to get into ACPA (Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts) and got a place in their diploma course. I did two years there doing my diploma and advanced diploma. I was fortunate enough to be taught by some wonderful teachers there and to also participate in some amazing performances over the two years. I also started to gain more confidence in myself and my abilities, however it was when I got into LINK Dance Company that I felt I really came into my own. When I got to WAAPA I learnt a few home truths about myself. I learnt that I am most possibly dyslexic, I find it hard to transpose my left from my right, and that I had to learn to pick things up more quickly (something I still struggle with to this day). I think when you are thrown in a situation where you are dancing with some of the best dancers in Australia that you quickly learn to adapt to the situation and the best comes out of you in the process. That was what my experience with LINK was, it was both utterly terrifying but in the end the most rewarding thing I have ever done to better myself as a dancer.
You also paint and have exhibited and sold some of your work. How similar or different is the process of starting out on a blank canvas to that of beginning a new dance project?
Actually I have found the processes to be quite similar in many ways. Initially when I started painting back when I was younger, I pretty much painted what I saw. The attention to detail was crucial to having a finished product. I would forever be in the studio for hours trying to replicate on the canvas what I was seeing. Similarly to dance, especially when learning repertoire, you are trying to replicate what the choreographers intentions are. The attention to detail is again crucial, and like painting you can spend hours in the studio trying to replicate what you have either seen or been taught. However I have found with this process, especially in relation to both my art and dance creation, you can stifle the creativity of what potentially could become something new and exciting.
When I started abstract painting earlier this year I found the process to be more difficult than trying to actually copy something from a picture etc. It was a very hard concept to try to rack my brain around and I found initially the first few paintings I did I tried to go back to my old process of replicating something in real life. I found that if I went to class and pretty much had no idea what I was going to do or how I was going to do it and just let the brush and paint dictate what the painting was, the end result was always something more meaningful to me than something I had copied from a picture or object. For instance the painting that was chosen to be exhibited in the City of South Perth Emerging Artist Award was a complete mistake. I had no idea what I was doing and the end product was not what I had initially started to create. However once I started the painting sort of evolved and showed itself to me at the end. Paintings such as these are always the ones which I have had the most success with and usually sell quite well.
Similarly with my work as a dancer, I find if I come in with a preconceived idea or set choreography, the end result doesn’t always seem to be what I planned in the beginning. So therefore I usually work from an improvisation base and with one preconceived idea or direction I work around that. I find this to be more challenging and rewarding because you have no idea what you are doing. It is the fear of the unknown and the fact that you don’t have to follow any set choreography or movement that you begin to find the freedom in your ideas. You are also open to suggestions because you don’t have a certain method or choreography to follow and therefore anything anyone gives to the process is valid. You learn not to be so perfect and that perfection in dance is not always what you are trying to achieve. Instead the end result is a much more meaningful piece and audiences tend to respond more to this than something that is rigid in its structure and movement.
Having worked for the past year in the field of inclusive practice, I have found that the idea of perfection in dance is not necessarily a given and that faults or what are perceived as imperfections in the movement structure are actually exciting avenues for interesting and more meaningful choreography.
You purposefully didn’t tell anyone about your disability when you returned to dance, why was that?
This has been a combination of advice that has been given to me and my own personal feelings I’ve felt about who I can tell. Initially when I started back I didn’t tell my first teacher till at least a month or so into doing my first ballet class. I remember she was quite shocked and was surprised when I told her about my operation. Other teachers I have told have often reacted differently to me afterwards. I’ve often got the ‘do the best you can’ attitude from quite a few of them. Some teachers that have taught me still have no idea to this day as far as I’m aware. The only times I have been forced to tell someone is when it becomes a dangerous situation and then I will often let the teacher know that no I cannot do that as I risk breaking my neck etc.
Other times its been that the teacher has picked up on something that they can’t quite put their finger on and then I’m usually forced to tell them. It’s hard as there is really no one I know of that is in the same situation as me so I really don’t know what is the right way to approach this. In some way it makes sense to let them know about my operation due to health/safety etc while on the other hand I want to give myself a fair chance to be able to dance freely and without prejudice and feel that telling some people will compromise my chances. The truth of the matter is that when people know they often view you differently and no matter what you do after their view of you is often changed. There’s only been a few times that a teacher has been able to see through my disability and that’s been a few contemporary teachers at ACPA, some at WAAPA and Michael Whaites and surprisingly Paul White who looked me in the eye and said not to make that an excuse. I’ve never really gotten to thank him for that so if you’re reading this, “thank you Paul.”
I suppose I’ve been lucky in a way as I don’t have a visible disability so its easier to hide it as opposed to someone with an obvious physical or developmental disability. I’ve also been able to experience life on both sides of the spectrum once as a physically capable dancer and the other as one with a disability. Since starting dance again I previously never thought of myself as disabled. It was only when I started to change career paths and go into a profession that deals with the physicality and virtuosity of the body that I have began to view myself differently from others. However over the years of doing dance I have made peace with the decision that has changed my life. I believe that the path we choose is for a reason and that my path is to do dance even if it is with a body that is not necessarily perfect.
So what is your current focus these days since finishing your training with LINK Dance Company?
At the beginning of this year I had various opportunities that I thought would give me the opportunity for work throughout this year. Unfortunately that didn’t go according to plan so I had to try and keep myself busy. I started a dance collective with another ex member of LINK, Catherine Ryan, called Symbiosis Collective. At first we started it just to keep ourselves busy but then we found ourselves writing grants to create work and have our work shown. In total this year we have applied for about 5 grants or applications to have our work developed or shown. Two are yet to be finalised. So this year has really helped me gauge the process of grant writing something quite a few dancers and artists for that matter avoid.
I have also started an artist internship with a group called Tracksuit based in Perth. Tracksuit is an all abilities company that is run by Paige Gordon as part of a DADAA WA initiative. Along with Catherine Ryan we are assisting Paige in the production and choreography of the Tracksuit’s end of year show. Working with Tracksuit has really been an amazing experience for both Catherine and I as we are able to see the growth and development of skills in most of the performers and to also see them (the dancers) try new things that they necessarily wouldn’t consider trying. Since we’ve been involved Tracksuits profile has increased significantly and this is due to the hard work and dedication that Paige and her former colleague James put in, in establishing Tracksuit since its humble beginnings. Next year promises to hold even bigger things for Tracksuit so watch this space.
At the beginning of November this year, Symbiosis Collective will have performed their first work at the Fremantle Festival. The past month has been extremely busy for me and Catherine as we have tried to juggle work and rehearsal commitments to put this show together. It will be performed at Greg James Sculpture Studio in Fremantle and hopefully it will be a sign of things to come on the Perth dance scene.
So to really sum it all up, this year has been about getting my brand out there and networking with various people to make it happen.
You recently attended the Beyond Technique Residency at Riversdale and were chosen to work solo with Elizabeth Ryan. Can you tell me about this experience?
The opportunity to work solo is always something I enjoy. I find that working solo you have the ability to explore movement in other ways that you may not necessarily find when working in a group. It also is good in a way in that if you forget what you’re doing it doesn’t matter as no one will know anyway. Working with Elizabeth Ryan along with four others chosen to work solo at the Beyond Technique Residency at Riversdale was quite an honour and Elizabeth gave me some valuable information that I still apply to this day in the creation of work. I felt that with her guidance I was able to create one of the best solo dance pieces I have ever thought of, I also felt that the environment I was surrounded in gave me inspiration as well.
I remember when I first got there, the day was quite cloudy and due to the pristine crystal water of the Shoalhaven River, the reflection from the clouds looked like we were on top of a mountain. I knew from that moment that my solo dance work would involve the river in some manner. With Elizabeth’s help I was able to fine tune some of my ideas and I came up with the idea of being possessed by nature and as a result my work, which I titled ‘Spirited Away’ explored the concept of what happens once that possession takes place, where do you go from there? Hopefully I can further explore this idea in the future with extra dancers involved.
Joshua Pether was born in Mt Isa and is descendant of the Kalkadoon people. At the age of six he started ballet at the local ballet school performing in many local productions. Later in life when he relocated to Brisbane he began his journey again with dance attending a local dance studio called MAD where he trained in ballet, hip-hop, contemporary and jazz: contemporary being the main focus of his training.
In 2010 he was accepted into the diploma course at the Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts (ACPA) and was fortunate enough to be featured in works by choreographers such as Penny Mullen, Gail Mabo, Richard Causer and Elise May. In his Advanced Diploma year he was given numerous opportunities to develop his choreographic skills. He attended the Bell Tower workshop auspiced by Ausdance in which he was given the opportunity to work with creatives in the industry such as Brian Lucas, Vanessa Mafe, Jackie Carroll and Rosetta Cook. He also choreographed a dance piece called The Odyssey for the ACPA graduation of the dance majors.
In 2012 he relocated to Perth after being accepted into LINK Dance Company (WAAPA). That year saw him perform works by Larissa McGowan, Michael Whaites, Jo Pollitt, Jacob Lehrer, Kim McCarthy and Sue Peacock. He was also involved in a remount of a Twyla Tharp work called Sweet Fields and Slack by Larissa McGowan, the latter of which toured to Montpelllier and Amsterstam. That same year he also worked with Ochre Contemporary Dance Company in their debut season performing in Orion’s Belt by Jacob Lehrer and Thoogoorba by Tammi Gissell.
With Catherine Ryan he co-founded a collective called Symbiosis which aims to give voice to social justice issues. Joshua worked with Philip Channells (Dance Integrated Australia) and Paige Gordon (Tracksuit) as a choreographic/workshop assistant as part of the Beyond Technique and Enter & Exit workshops series during Dance Week WA (2013). The collaboration of working with these two in the industry highlights his already keen interest in integrated dance and helped further his knowledge of disability in dance, something of which he has a personal connection to.
Photo: Chris Jallard / Red Berry Photography