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In 2013 Vicki Van Hout was in Paris as part of a three-month Australia Council-sponsored residency that put her in close proximity to the Jewish Museum, where she witnessed a three-day ceremony in which the names of every French Jew deported by the Nazis during WW2 was read aloud.
“I went in a few times and listened to them calling out these names,” the choreographer recalls. “Every time they called out the name of a child, they would say that child’s age – there were babies, toddlers… They did that so that we don’t forget – and we remember how to behave. So that we’re held accountable.”
It’s an experience Van Hout recounts during a conversation about Stolen, the Jane Harrison play that she is directing for National Theatre of Parramatta. Premiering at Melbourne’s Malthouse in 1998, less than a year after the release of the landmark Bringing Them Home report, Harrison’s was the first theatre work about the Stolen Generations. Since that debut, it’s never been long out of circulation – in Australia and abroad.
National Theatre of Parramatta are reviving Harrison’s Stolen as part of their inaugural season, the second of two plays they’ve assigned to choreographers (previously Swallow, by Scottish playwright Stef Smith, was directed by Force Majeure founder Kate Champion).
For Van Hout, Stolen – like the Holocaust memorial – is an important act of communal remembering about a chapter of Australian history (roughly 1909-1969) in which thousands of Aboriginal children – including members of her family – were removed from their families under a government policy of assimilation.
“In a way, this play is a reminder to treat each other well; a reminder that we’re all people who deserve to be treated well,” says Van Hout. She was so honoured by the offer to direct Harrison’s play, she says, that she said yes immediately – before considering the challenges of bringing a text-based play to stage for the first time in her career.
Van Hout, who trained at NAISDA and then at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance in New York, has a choreographic practice largely based on devised works, either with companies like Urban Theatre Projects (The Fence) or independent projects like her dance theatre works Briwyant (2010) and Long Grass (2014), both of which explore contemporary urban Indigenous experience. Working from someone else’s text, rather than creating it in the room with collaborators and performers, is new for her – and daunting, she says.
“But there are similar themes in Stolen and Long Grass,” she says. “There’s this displacement that runs through both works.”
Perhaps even more than the content, it is Harrison’s method of storytelling that so perfectly meshes with Van Hout’s own practice. In a kaleidoscope of short scenes, the playwright delivers the experience of thousands through the prism of five characters who were forcibly removed from their families as children. Most of the stories are told by the characters as children, and the language is poetic and impressionistic. Van Hout describes it as a kind of modern Dreaming, or song-cycle: a nonlinear, episodic and more fluid form of storytelling.
“It’s a well-trodden route [within Indigenous culture],” says Van Hout. “Song, dance and storytelling – it’s something that is promoted as a way to get through things, within remote and urban Indigenous communities. And specifically it’s about talking around things, rather than getting straight to the point.”
“I think that’s why National Theatre of Parramatta have taken a chance on me,” says Van Hout. “They recognise that there are other ways to access the emotion and the story than through the purely literary play.”