For a hoofer who once thought she’d be lucky to edge her way out of the commercial dance scene, it’s special.
Patyegarang, unknown to most Australians and even harder to pronounce, was the mysterious young Eora woman who befriended astronomer and linguist Lt William Dawes, after whom Dawes Point in Sydney is named.It’s an extraordinary tale, unearthed when Bangarra’s director Stephen Page and dramaturg Alana Valentine started wading through Dawes’ diaries and found a most unlikely relationship between the colonist and a young woman who shared his keen interest in language and culture.
With so many horrific “Secret River”-type stories to be told, including Sheppard’s own choreographed work, “Macq”, the story of Patyegarang shines through as a positive one.
It’s been quite a trajectory for Sheppard, born in Brisbane and raised in Melbourne.
“We were always brought up to be proud in our Aboriginality and we knew our nanna came from the Gulf country,” she tells me, but we weren’t sure exactly where.
Leaving school, she joined the Dance Factory College in Richmond, got into commercial shows in Melbourne, then quickly realised that wasn’t going to satisfy her.
“In the commercial world, a massive emphasis is placed on looks and that seems quite shallow,” she says.
“I’ve always been the kind of person who looked for something more spiritual.”
Then the principal of Dance Factory took her to see Bangarra.
“I fell in love then, I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” she says.
Sheppard moved to Sydney and, after training at NAISDA Dance College, joined Bangarra in 2007.
Patyegarang, to her, is the role of a lifetime.
“She is very special as is William Dawes, because of their sharing of language and culture,” she says.
Sheppard has built on her view of the Eora woman.
“She has courage and pride, she is a leader in her community, she connects with somebody who is different, who she could relate to very deeply,” she says.
“What an amazing duo they were against the odds.”
A love relationship is hinted at in the show.
“None of us was there, but we can speculate that they might have had incredibly close moments,” Sheppard notes, “Patyegarang was already an initiated woman, ready to be married.”
Sheppard believes the relationship was “a consummation of the deepest respect”.
Reading the diaries, she says, was very affecting for both her and the non-indigenous dancer Thomas Greenfield, who plays Dawes.
One of the most fulfilling things is that she gets to play a real historical character, but sadly, “the last part of her story is lost, because no one knows what happened after William left Australia”.
“I try to get a sense of that in my performance that there is hope, but her personal spirit, well, it feels a little bit as if she’s still here,” Sheppard concludes.
Bangarra Dance Theatre’s 25th anniversary tour of “Patyegarang”, Canberra Theatre, July 17-19. Free pre-show forum on opening night with Stephen Page, bookings to 6275 2700.