“Dance is forever rediscovered in its sharing,” noted Amrita Hepi. A Bundjulung and Ngapuhi dancer and choreographer who is invested in getting others to move, Hepi has been doing a lot of sharing, and a lot of discovering.
“When I was eleven or twelve, my dance teacher gave me the opportunity to teach and to assist her,” recalled Hepi, and this set off a lifetime of interactions that began at her local dance school. Training at the National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association, Hepi has worked with companies such as Indigenous dance troupe Marrugeku and Force Majeure, while also teaching the people of GoodGod to dance like Beyoncé. Now, for the past three summers, Hepi has taught festival goers from Perth to Tamworth how to limber up with Groovin’ The Moo, and this summer, as part of the Bacardi El Coco Tropical Danceteria, she continued the classes at Spilt Milk in Canberra and will return once more for Mountain Sounds Festival in February.
In-between these gigs, Hepi trained in New York at the Alvin Ailey American Dance School, where she absorbed dance styles and movements from Afro, Caribbean and Latin traditions, and worked at Dance Central on Cleveland Street where dance styles from the Pacific were taught. Reflecting on her influences, Hepi highlighted, “not only was the music amazing, but it was the stories and people who were teaching it.”
Currently, Hepi is exploring these connections and stories in her video installation The Pace at Cement Fondu, shown in parallel with work by American artist Adrian Piper. The work explores histories and practices of weaving in Hepi’s personal story, as well as those that she researched during a residency at The Smithsonian in Washington DC. Presented as a three-channel video work, the installation is the continuation of a fascination with video for Hepi.
“My original plan as a young child was to become a backup dancer in music videos. That was the goal, that was my MO, what I'm going to do. Then I was like ‘How come when I'm filming myself dancing it's not the same as how I'm seeing things edited’ and then it made me pay attention to story to detail, how we use the camera and choreography.”
Working across these multiple forms and contexts, and a willingness to let her practice be shaped by her interactions with others, Hepi highlighted how, “I never wanted to emerge as a 2D hegemonic figure.”
While professional artists are often encouraged to categorise themselves in a particular field, Hepi has been part of a wave of multidisciplinary practitioners, who resist the labels that they are assigned.
“Under oppressive structures, institutionalised racism, capitalism, there's a tendency to flatten things and so only one kind of representation can emerge.”
Moving between forms and sharing her talents with others, Hepi’s practice allows for a multiplicity of points of entry for audiences, collaborators and participants, and dance, as she notes, “is a practice that you can do by yourself, [but] it's much more fun with others.”
Developing her own skills, Hepi seeks out professional instruction. Not one to work alone in a studio, Hepi still turns up for class and does physical practices with a group. Putting these practices onto stage, Hepi does not see the performed movement as the final product.
“The ability to see that someone is really working through something — how can we continue to have that discovery process and surprise ourselves? — I always find that really exciting when I see that or when I can experience that.”
While dancing is a central component of the festival experience, Hepi has found that participants are not always prepared for the format of her dance classes.
“I think a lot of the time people are expecting me to sing or to rap or that I'm the DJ. The first set was kind of terrible, it was hard to get people engaged, people were really wasted. So then I have to create a new way of teaching that was more on the fly, more participatory.”
Now, at Hepi’s latest class, she had the crowd split in half and then formed a runway through the centre, where participants demonstrated their newfound talents. In liberating dance from being an uncomfortable or self-conscious experience, Hepi hopes that others can find the connections that she has discovered.
“I'm trying to always be dig deep into my personal story in order to connect to the universal.”
The next stop for the Bacardi El Coco Tropical Danceteria will be Mountain Sounds festival on February 15 and 16. The Ropes: Amrita Hepi x Adrian Piper continues at Cement Fondu until February 24. You can see more of Hepi’s work at https://www.amritahepi.com