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Ella (ATOM study guide)

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    I often feel like I am dancing between two worlds and struggling to find where I fit in. It's not until I can really blend my two different worlds together that I feel like I can accomplish what I want as a dancer: to really tell my own story. – Ella Havelka

    In October 2012, Ella Havelka became the first Indigenous dancer to be invited into the Australian Ballet, an announcement that made news headlines nationwide. However, it was a homecoming for Ella, who had always dreamed of joining the company.

    Ella is a descendant of the Wiradjuri people from Dubbo in country New South Wales. The daughter of single mother Janna, her introduction into the world of dance began with Physical Culture, where she rose to compete at a national level. Then, one day, Ella watched a video that Janna brought home from the local library of a performance of Swan Lake and ballet called to her – she was hooked. Janna got her into classes at the Dubbo Ballet Studio and, with the help of scholarships and hand-me-down tutus, Ella devoted her life to dance. She quickly started winning local Eisteddfods and was soon dancing six days a week.

    The Dubbo community was elated when Ella was accepted into the Australian Ballet School in Melbourne at the age of fourteen, where she honed her craft in an intensely competitive environment. However, upon graduation after four arduous years, she was devastated not to be offered a position in the Australian Ballet core company. But this was not the end of her dream. In 2009, Ella joined Bangarra – the prestigious Sydney-based Indigenous dance company – where she learnt not only the very different rigours of contemporary dance, but began a powerful and moving journey of self-discovery into her Indigenous heritage.

    It was not until Bangarra did a joint performance with the Australian Ballet – Warumuk – In the Dark night in 2012 – that the calling of the ballet was reignited within Ella. In an historic occasion, the Australian Ballet's Artistic Director David McAllister invited her to join the core company. Ella accepted this position and became the first Indigenous dancer to join the Australian Ballet in its fifty-year history.

    This feature documentary follows Ella as she faces the challenges of adapting back to being en pointe after four years of barefoot dancing with Bangarra. We see her face the fierce competition for the best positions and roles – she even questions her own role as the first Indigenous dancer in the Australian Ballet. We also go with the Australian Ballet on their highly esteemed 2015 international tour to China, where Ella finally gets to dance in Graeme Murphy's enchanting interpretation of Swan Lake in Beijing. Ella's childhood dream has come true.

    Woven throughout this inspiring dance story is a touching and heartbreaking personal journey back to her roots. We join Ella and Janna on a road trip through her country, traditional Wiradjuri land, where Ella reconnects with her Indigenous culture – learning traditional language, basket-weaving with elders and visiting the gravesites of her ancestors for the first time. She also explores her childhood. Both Ella and Janna give intimate accounts of the circumstances surrounding her birth. For Ella never knew her father, even though he lived in the same town. However, after his death, Ella was given a scrapbook of clippings that he kept of her whole career. She feels now that he was always with her.

    But ultimately in this film we follow Ella as she finds her own identity by choreographing her own dance. Using a unique blend of Bangarra's contemporary Indigenous style and traditional western ballet, Ella finally expresses herself in her own way. Featuring intimate interviews, dynamic dance sequences and a stunning array of archival material, this moving documentary follows Ella as she explores her cultural identity and offers a rare glimpse into her life as an elite ballet dancer within the largest company in the southern hemisphere.

    Curriculum links

    This documentary is relevant to studies of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures, Health and Physical Education, English and Media Arts.

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