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Nicholas Rowe is a nomadic dancer
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Nicholas Rowe is a nomadic dancer
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Nicholas Rowe is a nomadic dancer
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"One of my golden rules is to go in and have lots of conversations."
1 July 2009

Nicholas Rowe is a nomadic dancer

Interview by Patrick Abboud
Photography by Josef Brown

Patrick Abboud on Nicholas Rowe

A young(er) Nicholas Rowe had the world at the tips of his ballet shoes. He had danced with the Sydney Dance Company and the Australian, Royal New Zealand and Finnish Ballets. Then an epic bike journey through Europe, Africa and India shifted his outlook and ever since he’s been working within the world’s most traumatised communities, helping to foster communication and story-telling through dance.

During the eight years he spent in Ramallah, Palestine, he not only helped hundreds of children to cope with their suffering, but also had two of his own with wife Maysoun. They now live in New Zealand where Nicholas has taken a position as Associate Dean (Postgraduate) National Institute of Creative Arts and Industries of Auckland University. We spoke with him there.

This story originally ran in issue #20 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

PATRICK ABBOUD: So now you’re living and working in New Zealand after being in Ramallah (Palestine) for four, or was it five, years?

NICHOLAS ROWE: Eight years.

It must be a bit of a culture shock going to New Zealand after being there for eight years; that’s a long time.

Yes, it is in some ways and not so much in others. At first it’s just the convenience of it. We can go to the beach without passing through a checkpoint. We can do all sorts of things: we can go to the park; we can go anywhere without passing through a checkpoint. You don’t have to worry about invasions or any tensions in that regard. As we were in Ramallah, things were getting worse and worse all the time. So that kind of convenience overwhelms a lot of the other aspects of withdrawal from Palestine. The biggest loss is that sense of family, the big, strong and broad extended family which was great and very supportive of our children.

Is that the family of your wife?

Yes, my wife Maysoun’s family. Also being away from the very buzzing and exciting activity that’s there in terms of dance and culture and such. It’s not like a culture shock; I think whenever you’re anywhere new it takes a while to readjust and establish social networks. These are the sorts of things that make it hard. I don’t think it’s such a big, oh suddenly you’re driving on the other side of the road and that’s just too radical to handle, that kind of thing.

I guess you’re used to readjusting. You’ve moved all around the world and have worked in some extraordinary places, but you grew up in Darwin, is that right?

Yeah that’s right and since then I’ve travelled through 65 different countries and lived and worked in most of them.

For the first couple of days it feels very exciting in any new place, and then it goes for about a week of feeling terribly insecure, and then it picks up again and the excitement starts building on slower levels. The excitement and insecurity of being in that new location comes and goes in waves.

What was it like growing up in Darwin and how’s that had an impact on the path you’ve taken now?

Darwin’s a great place because it’s just so open and classless in a sense. There’s not a class structure like you’ll find in a lot of other cities, and it’s very multi-cultural. Everybody’s just kind of mixed together there so it makes it a lot easier to accept people for who they are, rather than, “Oh well they’re from that kind of neighbourhood, and they’re from this kind of neighbourhood, and this I what my identity is.” Everybody is everybody. I remember when I first went south to Sydney and I was told, “Those people are Westies, and those people are from the North Shore.” It felt really strange to feel that within this one city there were all these different divisions of cultural identity. Because Darwin is up in the north of Australia and has a large Asian and Southern European mix as well as Indigenous Australians, it has that provincial yet cosmopolitan feel.

Would you say that’s when the journey started? When you left Darwin for the big smoke of Sydney?

Not quite. All through my childhood my family would go on lots of holidays from Darwin because it’s so close to South-East Asia. We’d always be going off to a different island in Indonesia or to places a bit further afield like Singapore, and Malaysia. That brought an early introduction to the notion of going to another place and visiting another culture. I always associated visiting new places with fun and adventure and engagement rather than something terribly scary.

I suppose that’s changed over the years because you’ve been in regions like Bosnia, Turkey, Ghana and then Palestine for the past eight years; they’re not the kind of places you’d usually go for fun.

No, I guess those went to further extremes, but how a lot of those places appear to us on the news is very different to what they are in reality, particularly in the cases of Bosnia, or Pakistan, or Ethiopia.

This story originally ran in issue #20 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #20 of Dumbo Feather

So you were an accomplished artist, you’d graduated from the Australian Ballet School …

I’d danced with the Australian Ballet and the Sydney Dance Company. I’d moved to Europe and did a year with the Finnish Ballet but found I was pretty dissatisfied with the meaning of dance in that sort of … ‘Opera House’ context.

I thought, I’m going to see the world. I guess that’s when the real travel began. I bought a motorbike in Finland and spent six months riding through Europe working on farms and in rural communities, mostly as a day labourer, with different population groups from West Africa: Ghana, Liberia and Nigeria. We were picking fruit. That was in 1991. Hearing the stories of other people’s migrations – particularly those from West Africa and what they’d done illegally to get to Europe, and work illegally, and be terribly underpaid in these fruit-picking jobs in Spain – gave me an interest in finding out more about their stories. I remember working with Ghanaian fruit-pickers in the pear trees. We’d be up at the top of these trees, and in some ways it was horrible because there would be this Spanish farm-keeper screaming at you all from below to pick this pear and that pear and reach up further and get the most pears, but these guys would be up there smiling away and singing these songs and clapping. For them it was like they were above the clouds on top of these trees. They took their own culture with them and that was their main way of remaining above the oppressive exploitation they were subject to in that environment. They told me stories of Ghana and Africa so I thought I’d take my bike on further and I rode across Africa, through the Sahara, Algeria and Mali, Burkino Faso, and into Ghana.

I worked in a primary school for a little while just teaching normal subjects and living in a small shanty town on the edge of Kumasi. I tried to get a sense of their stories from that perspective. Then I travelled on through to East Africa and through India until eventually I got back to Australia a year later, broke. All my savings from working as a dancer were gone so I went back into dancing. I worked with the Royal New Zealand and West Australian Ballets, but these were ways of making money so that I could get back out into these odd places for more adventures. Then I applied for an Australia Council grant, which set me up in the Philippines for six months working with various groups there and doing research on dance in those cultural settings. Whilst I was working part of the time with Ballet Philippines, a lot of the time I was out with other groups including some in the slums of Manila doing dance projects and community education projects with dance. Further in the south of the Philippines, in the mountains of IloIlo, I saw how people in that context used dance as a means of expressing themselves, and communicating, and continuing and maintaining their society – particularly societies that are under stress or threat by economic or massive migration.

Is that what it is that draws you to these kinds of places of conflict, or these rural areas where the Australian Ballet doesn’t have much of a place at all?

Well I wouldn’t necessarily say they’re places of conflict, but they’re places where people are struggling to maintain a sense of connection with each other in spite of their very testing environment. It’s fascinating to see people in these circumstances, who are struggling to cope, connect with each other in some way. It’s just a very inspiring thing and it’s such a contrast to being in the ah … relatively bitchy and self-absorbed environment of ballet companies where people aren’t using dance to gain connections with each other, but are using it to promote their own identity. That contrast made it a lot harder for me to go back and remain in the ballet company, or the dance company, environment.

How did you negotiate your place between the two worlds during that time?

It’s an interesting question because at first I thought, if there’s any use in me doing this, what I should be doing is taking the culture back and representing them in the dance. I was working mostly as a choreographer by that stage, so I’d choreograph a piece that I felt was introducing people to foreign aesthetics or ideas. Even if it wasn’t necessarily about West Africa or wherever, it was using movements and ideas that I’d got there. I thought that was a justification; however, I remember having a long conversation with a Rastafarian in Ethiopia who introduced me to the notion of cultural exploitation and appropriation.

He was saying, “Michael Jackson and all those people come over here and have taken our dance moves and now they’re promoted as American dance.” I realised I was being an agent of the same cultural appropriation. I shifted my work more into asking, how can I help these people to create their dances and present them in the most accessible way for the world to see, and for the world to see that these are their ideas? What role or function can I take in that? That was a much more difficult task than simply going there, dancing with them, getting some ideas from them, giving them some of my ideas and then moving away. I look back on that earlier period and think, oh God I was a cultural imperialist, trying to show them what ballet was and what their dances were so I could take their ideas and impose mine. It’s not that harsh, but that’s how I look back at it.

How did you take yourself from place to place? Did these things just come up? Did you meet people at the right time?

I think part of that is that I’ve never been terribly picky. Well I have and haven’t. I look back at all of the places and the people I’ve been engaged with and think, wow, they’re such incredible artists, but they weren’t necessarily hugely recognised or had great names or associations with things. I think it came from believing that everybody has interesting stories to tell, everybody can move or dance in some way. When I’d be introduced to someone I wouldn’t be gauging their standard of technique or level of popularity and prestige in the community before I’d think of working with them. I was just, oh well, this person’s interesting, do they want to do something? If you do that, with that kind of attitude, then it’s not that hard to engage with people and start working with them all over the place.

Was it a conscious choice to pick the artists you’ve worked with or was it more like going with the wind of … ?

It was like going with the wind, like, this is an interesting person, and we’d just start experimenting with stuff. On occasion it was arranged for me, like in places like Pakistan. When I went there back in 1997 the Ministry of Culture had organised that I work with Tereemah Mitha who was a leading Barat Natyam dancer. That was great, but at the same time perhaps less of an organic connection than many of the others. With Turkey and Modern Dance Toplulugu, I was just passing through Turkey on my way to Iran and the hotel I was staying in happened to be opposite the opera theatre and so I thought I’d have a look at what was inside. I walked into a studio with all these modern dancers and I thought, this is great, I’ll stay here. I went and spoke to the director and stayed there.

You’ve obviously got a burning passion in you for sharing other people’s stories and working within communities to help them share their own stories, but at the same time you sound like a bit of an adventurer, you love travel. Is it that, as well as your passion for dance, that’s taken you to these places?

Yeah. I’m very nomadic by nature. For a long time I’ve wanted to move and see what’s going on in different places, but that’s changed quite a bit now since having a family. I think maybe it’s also an age thing. When you’re in your 20s and 30s it’s a lot easier to go, “Let’s see what’s around the next corner”, but I would still love to travel as much as I can. That’s obviously not so convenient to do with kids going to school and that sort of thing.

You stayed in Ramallah and Palestine for eight years because there was a lot going on there?

And because Ramallah’s constantly transforming, it’s got these walls and checkpoints going up all the time. Even within Ramallah, I was always going off to small little villages and communities and working all over the West Bank, so that sense of travel was maintained to a degree. It was so difficult to get to another village that when you got there it felt like you’d been on a 24-hour flight.

When did you realise that you needed to go and live with these communities and work one-on-one with them to do what you said in terms of helping them to share their ideas with others?

It’s hard to pinpoint, but after working in the Philippines I worked for a couple of years with Modern Dance Turkey in Ankara. That was one transitional step because it was going and staying for a longer period with one particular dance group and seeing how I could engage and work with them. But I got quite turned off that there because I found they were already very influenced by a Western set of ideals and the way they were going seemed to be, how are we going to Westernise ourselves more?

I realised that was against my ideals. Modern dance was a very elitist art form there in that it appealed to 1% of the population or less and didn’t really talk to, and, in fact, generally ignored, the rest.

I moved out of that and started working with this Bosnian dancer, Layla Nezirovic-Wiseman, in London. She had been through quite a complex experience in terms of war. We had a company for a couple of years called Nomad Dance Theatre. We did a lot of projects between London and Bosnia. It gave me a sense of working with someone from another culture and facilitating the stories they wanted to tell. Then I went to Palestine for the first time to teach a workshop in 1998 … I taught a workshop there for two weeks and it was great. It was a very vibrant group of dancers in the Popular Arts Centre in Ramallah. I thought, wow these guys are great. One of their comments was, “Oh people come and they go. They come for a week to teach a course and then they leave and we try to remember the work and what was done.” I thought, well maybe I should stay here for a longer period and see how they want to work on dances that are much more related to their own aesthetic; rather than a modern dance company, this was a folk dance group. How could I help facilitate and contribute to that and investigate and see how they’re doing it? So in 2000 I moved to Palestine for what I was thinking would be just a six-month stay that ended up stretching out to the next eight years. I guess that was the point at which I realised that it might be a much more useful thing to go in and learn what they were doing and then work with those artists to create the works that they want to in connection with what they think the wider community wants.

When you got to Palestine what did you do? Did you go to work with a specific dance company?

No, I worked with the Popular Arts Centre which is like a cultural centre and holds workshops. It houses the El-Funoun Popular Dance Troupe, which can be classified in some ways as a folk dance troupe and in some ways as a contemporary dance troupe depending on your perspective, and another group similar to that, the Sareyyet Ramallah dance group. They were working on various productions so I was a choreographic consultant and teacher on those. When the Intifada broke out in September 2000, it was towards the end of the six months that I’d been there and I was thinking, ok I can easily leave here. But, by that time, I was involved in what was quite a serious relationship with Maysoun, who’s now my wife. I thought, ok well dance isn’t going to continue on as it has been, because once the Intifada began all cultural activity shut down. There were no performances in the evenings; everyone was in mourning because of the sudden loss of life; all these children had been killed.

I had to think, what am I going to do, how am I going to work with dance in this context now? So we started doing these projects taking dance workshops to children in the refugee camps and that went on for the next year really quite intensely. We were taking different dance artists from Ramallah to refugee camps, working with kids, giving them some other activity because there was fairly little creative arts activity occurring for kids at that stage in the refugee camps and almost no community outreach programmes.

How do you prepare yourself for working in such tough conditions, especially with children? What are the processes you go through as an artist?

Well I really refined my understanding of how to engage with dancers and children in those community contexts. I’d done lots of community dance workshops before and taught, but it was quite a different context because the children there hadn’t had so much experience with this kind of activity in their schools … Just to give you a picture of the refugee camps in the West Bank. A child goes to a concrete block which is the school and they’re in a classroom with 50 kids at least. There’s one teacher who’s basically screaming at them, forced to scream at them, from the front of the room all day long. There’s very little interactive activity and discipline’s enforced through fear or intimidation. So trying to get them to then be interactive with each other in a non-authoritarian forum such as a dance workshop was a massive shift. The first year working on that project I was really listening to them and watching the other teachers, seeing what techniques worked and trying to figure out what was going to be the best way. From discussions with the teachers and such I wrote the manual Art, During Siege which we published in English and Arabic. It became the basis of a training manual for the teachers who then went out and taught in the various refugee camps. It had several steps and stages and methods of engaging with kids so that they’d first be able to interact freely with each other without recourse to bullying or getting uncontrollably wild, and at the same time creative and active. That then became the basis of my research into my PhD which was exploring how one engages with a community on this level and helps facilitate art when it is going through such trauma.

Has your approach to working in war zones changed over time or do you have to keep a certain set of rules because of the extreme conditions?

The guide that I follow in all of these is, listen first. With most of these war zones we have assumptions and preconceptions relating to what we’ve heard on the news about what is going on there and who’s to blame and who’s caused it. It never ceased to amaze me that when someone would first come to visit the West Bank, or I’d meet a new artist passing through, or even if I meet people now, people proffer their opinion of what’s going on, “Oh it’s because of religion”, “Oh it’s those people that do that”. I think, oh my God, how can they feel so confident to presume that they know what is the cause of the problem there. So one of my golden rules is to go in and have lots of conversations to find out what is going on, what are the codes of behaviour and what are the border lines of offence. I trust that people are rational everywhere and the reasons that people are doing odd things aren’t just because there’s something biologically wrong with them, but that they have rationales for these things. It doesn’t mean I have to agree with everything, but I at least try to gain a sense of their perspective.

Where do you place what you’re doing in terms of importance when thinking about a way of change, in Palestine?

I think the most important thing has been providing a forum for people to have discussion; either through facilitating dance workshops so that people can come in and dance together and figure out how they can create stuff together, or directing dance projects bringing dancers together and getting them to tell stories to the community and engaging in discussion that way, or other projects where I was leading a debating workshop series all over the Gaza Strip and West Bank for a few years. I think creative communication is the most important thing in these places, and it may be common to many complex environments like in a domestic environment, say in a house when people start fighting. The problem is that people get so frustrated and tense that they stop listening to each other, even the people on their own side.

They just start speaking in platitudes and it stops them from engaging and allowing new ideas to form and come out with a new solution. Art, During Siege looks at dance, drama, music and painting. It has the four Cs for its guidelines: creativity, communication, co-operation and continuation. How can we now use these art forms to serve those four very important goals for a community? How can we make or allow dance to get people more creative, to co-operate with each other more, to communicate with each other and to continue on and keep things going and to sustain ideas? That last one becomes very important because it’s really about empowering them to do that on their own when the workshop leader, or whoever, is not there. Going back to your original question, I guess rather than saying, oh this is important because it’s developing the art of Palestine or something, I think it’s just helping communities to remain more cohesive.

It’s more about the people than the forms?

Yeah, and I mean that’s a quite a strong plus for me; I’m not into art for art’s sake, I mean it’s completely ridiculous. Art or culture is there to serve us, we’re not there to serve it. I think that was one of the frustrating things I found originally within dance and ballet where we were meant to be serving this thing called ballet. Why? It’s not a god, it’s not of any particular importance.

If anything, dance is an art form, it is our slave and should be used to service the needs of our community and of our people, not to demand, frustrate and alienate a society.

Is that direction your current research is taking your PhD?

Yes my PhD, which I finished last year, was basically examining how dance functions in traumatised communities, particularly post colonial and marginalised communities. One of the most problematic things when I’ve worked with dancers in these contexts is that they’d take their work abroad and it’d be assessed or evaluated by people watching from their ideals. Central to postmodernism, which is perhaps seen as the pinnacle of cultural ideals at the moment in the Western world, is the idea that everything should be deconstructed, that there’s no ultimate meta-narrative or absolute truth that can’t be questioned. Which is fine if that works for that social context, but if you try to apply that in a context like Palestine, it means that, ok, we’re going to question religion, we’re going to question notions of the community or a historical event like the Nakba. But, if questioning them is going to foster alienation and social doubt, and people don’t want to do that, why should they feel obliged to have to for the sake of postmodernism? If people aren’t actively seeking to cut themselves off from their own path, as they were in the West in the 19th century and early 20th century, why should they have to follow this other path of rebellion that is implicit within modernism and postmodernism? So, to cut a long story short, and to get away from too much theorising, my academic research at this point is trying to present clarity on the ideals of artistic output in these kinds of communities so that it can be recognised and respected and not disregarded and it doesn’t become demanding to them to conform further and further to Western or colonial notions of what is ‘good art’. If people feel that their art is undervalued, then they feel they have to conform to foreign forms of art and they ultimately just become dependent on artists to come in from abroad and they can’t feel a sense of local dignity.

So this is what’s taken you to New Zealand?

Well after I finished the PhD I was looking for an academic post to further this research. The universities in Palestine in the West Bank really didn’t have such a strong connection with dance as an academic discipline and I was quite attracted to this place in New Zealand because of its strong investment in Maori and some indigenous and pacific dance forms, and cultural research into that. I thought, ok, it has been through quite a turbulent process of cultural colonisation and such over the last couple of hundred years, so it’s a place I can continue to investigate these kind of ideals and look at how do Pacific Islanders, Aboriginal Australians and Maoris use dance in their communities to maintain some sense of cohesion and continuation.

You’ve moved from so many places. It must be extremely difficult to leave some of the special people behind. The stories go with you, but it must be really hard to just, keep going.

Yes, it is. I think especially in places like Palestine, having family and friends back there and seeing the news and seeing what’s going on and feeling, oh how can I be living in some sort of luxurious environment when people are like that? I think that was one of the reasons that I basically left the West for such a long period because I just felt a revulsion every time I walked through a supermarket with copious amounts of food and all this excess and obese people and realising things are so easy here. But having a family puts all of that into perspective and now, yes, I do get those pangs of guilt and thoughts of the people who aren’t here in this environment; but I feel like I’ve got a lot more duty now to provide a nurturing environment for my children so then they can go out into the world and do something useful later.

What do you do with all the stories over these years? I mean you’ve worked and lived in more than 65 countries. Where do they stay?

I’ve written a lot. I’ve published a lot of stories in different places. I have a chapter in a book coming out next month which is Human Rights, Dance and Social Justice – Dignity in Motion with Scarecrow Press. I’ve got a book coming out next year, which is called Raising Dust: A History of Dance and Social Justice in Palestine and that captures a lot of those stories from Palestine and the whole history of dance in Palestine. Other things I’ve published through different magazines and places and then a lot of writings I just keep here on my shelf and I think one day I’ll get around to putting them together … little snippets of dance from different places.

And is that why you’ve moved onto film? You’ve just finished a film that you made in Palestine with children there …

Yeah, well film has become a really important medium. I’ve made a few dance films now; a few in Palestine which we’ve then shown outside, because film is one of the best ways for communities to engage in artistic and creative expression.

They can do it relatively cheaply now through digital media. It can be seen all over the world through YouTube, or various film festivals, or on television and stuff so it has a much longer shelf life than your usual community dance project. This film that I’ve just made in Palestine will, hopefully, also do that. It’s a children’s feature length film; it’s over an hour long and it’s based on the story of the Lord of the Flies. It emerged from working with children in Ramallah for over eight months on a project, rehearsing with them every weekend.

How old are the kids that you have been working with?

All the kids in this film were 13 or under, most of them under 10. We devised the story together, worked on the script together and all the dialogue in the film was improvised so the acting in it is very naturalistic. It’s brilliant, it’s very engaging acting throughout and was premiered in Ramallah on … I think December 6 is the day we’ve got set for it.

And will you go back for that?

Yes, I’m going to be going to Ramallah that week for the premiere and then we will be taking it to festivals around the world and showing it in different places.

It sounds like, because you’ve had a family of your own now, you’re settling down somewhere?

Yeah, that’s a scary phrase, like they’ll put me into a nursing home. I’ve got a contract here for four years and then we’ll see where things take us. We’ve got two under the age of four at the moment, which is quite an exhausting period, so you kind of need some settlement. The good thing with the University of Auckland is that it’s very well resourced and it’s able to send me off to all sorts of different projects around the world. It’s flying me back to Palestine for the premiere. I think also the institution is very well regarded globally. It’s providing a forum in which I’m hoping I can amplify these ideas that I’ve had as a peripheral wanderer of the earth for the last couple of decades into perhaps shaking more of the core of the establishment or the way people perceive and understand and address social issues in the world.

Patrick Abboud

Photography by Josef Brown

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