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The Shades of Steven Gray

Steven Gray believes in God, good, evil, singing and dancing. Connected to the past, with his sights on the future, the dancer talks to Rhoyce Nova about spirituality and his art.

Steven Gray speaks as he dances - with channelled focus. When questioned, he closes his eyes, brings his hand to his brow and pauses. The answer does not come until the listening is done. When the words arrive, they are delivered with a vigilant eye and undulating hands.

"Dance is the communication that was taboo," he says. "When I dance, my soul takes control of my senses. I can feel where my body is going, but I have no say in it. I am in the here and now, and at the same time I go back in time - back to sitting naked in the sun and playing in the earth."

Born on North Stradbroke Island to a mother with Aboriginal, Malaysian and Spanish blood and to a father of African, Melanesian and Irish descent, Gray came to Sydney to study with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Dance Theatre. From there, he found success with such dance companies as Bangarra, Dance North and One Extra. Although many are tempted to group Gray's work with that of well-known Aboriginal dancer and choreographer, Stephen Page, their styles are quite divergent. Where Page combines traditional Aboriginal movement with contemporary western dance, Gray fuses it with Afro-jazz to create an elegant yet explosive mixture.

"In me, I have the blood of five proud Black races and one proud white race," he says, "and so I feel that when I draw on those traditions in my dance there is an authenticity."

Choreographically, Gray focuses on the spiritual and spatial aspects of non-sacred Aboriginal dance movements, and grounds them with heavy African rhythms.

"In my dance, the Aboriginal is the sky and the Aboriginal and the African combined is the earth," he explains. "I draw in, or push out the sky, then I hammer it into the ground. I use the heavy breast, driving-down force of African dance to root my soul to my bones."

Gray becomes physically animated when describing the development of his personal style of dance and choreography, which, he says, coincided with the exploration of his Aboriginal heritage. His limbs begin to flow as he demonstrates that his dance is like a form of channelling. For Gray, it is the transferral of the spirit of his elders to a non-Aboriginal audience, and to the young Aboriginal children he teaches, that is paramount. "My forbears give me the bridge between white culture and black culture, which allows me to speak on their behalf in the city," he says. "I've a good relationship with my elders because I use only the non-sacred aspects of traditional Aboriginal dance."

Gray literally transforms from a kangaroo to an emu as he explains the significance of the animalistic gestures in his dance. "They are there to expose people to the spirit of these animals that exist in our dreaming," he explains. "When I dance them, they inhabit my soul - it's a conveyance of spirit, like the 'shape-shifting' you see in South American Indian culture. The dance speaks on behalf of these animals, and the land, in the hope that people will think twice before they abuse them."

While studying with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Dance Theatre, Gray met fellow students Christine Anu and Russell Page, whom he describes as his "soul sister" and his "inspiration" respectively. "Russell Page was my ideal," he says. "He taught me to accept myself as a Black man." Gray now describes himself as a "renaissance Aboriginal man", explaining that he gained most of his cultural understanding through racism.

"I had to consciously learn about my Aboriginal background, to find what was repressed and taken away," he says, adding, "contemporary culture never escapes the black and white thing, but I can't go on thinking of it in those terms. I feel really brother, sister, cousin with white culture. I say, 'It's done - let's fix it', but I also say, 'Black don't crack and will be back!'"

Gray reveals that singer and songwriter Christine Anu was the first to inspire him to become involved in the arts. He shares both her passion and her talent for singing. "Singing is today's drumming of the didgeridoo," he declares. "It is part of the vibration of the planet. It is about radiating touchable energy." But, unlike Anu, Gray is not interested in the "untouchable fame" side of singing. "It scares me," he says. "I want to touch and be

touched, to never be distant from the touch. I believe everybody has to sing every day, because to sing is to caress the child of our soul. I'm not here to have something written on my tombstone. I sing in the hope that when I die there will be music in my afterlife."

Gray predicts that when he no longer dances on stage he will dance with words, and with his being, for he views the entirety of life as a spiritual event. "I believe there is good and bad, and that you make and face your own demons," he says. "In me, as in everyone, there is good and bad, but I have chosen the good. I believe in God. My mother is my first womb, but my God is my after-womb. "God is sacred. God is good to me. I want to be with my God. I feel comfortable now, with my mother, my elders, my spirits, my God, myself."


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