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Connecting costumes to Country

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Darci O'Rourke, Rohan Furnell, Jill Ogai and Evie Ferris

Photo Isabella Elordi

First Nations creative Annette Sax is a Taungurung woman from Central Victoria. She joins The Australian Ballet at the invitation of Australian Dance Theatre Artistic Director, Daniel Riley for the THE HUM, part of the double bill program Identity.

An artist, designer and storyteller, Sax’s work honours her Elder’s Cultural Knowledges through pieces that incorporate natural fibres sourced from the traditional lands of Taungurung Badjur.

We chat about the process of creating the costumes for the upcoming production of THE HUM, a collaboration between Australian Dance Theatre and The Australian Ballet, and the connection between Country and costume.

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Artists of The Australian Ballet and Australian Dance Theatre

Photo Jonathan van der Knaap

After launching her fashion label, wa~ring, at the 2022 Melbourne Fashion Festival, Sax was approached by Riley to create costumes for THE HUM, part of a double bill contemporary program in collaboration with The Australian Ballet called Identity.

“My 2022 collection titled Nagambii (‘water source’ in Taungurung), featured garments that used pigments made from ground oche and charcoal collected from Taungurung and Yorta Yorta lands which were transferred onto fabric through a screen-printing process.”

Sax says the collaboration between herself, and Riley came about after he saw the collection online and reached out to her over social media. THE HUM costumes take inspiration from the Nagambii collection and use the same screen-printing process.

“I work with Space Craft who specialise in print making. They have worked with many First Nations artists and are really respectful around using pigments sourced from traditional lands,” says Sax.

Sax collected these pigments from Country and invited Australian Dance Theatre and The Australian Ballet dancers along with the wardrobe department to help grind the pigments before they were transferred onto fabric.

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Ochre from Taungurung Country

Photo Annette Sax

Scar Tree Ochre Painting

The Scar Tree Ochre Painting by Annette Sax is replicated onto the dancers costumes

Photo Annette Sax

There are three central designs that take inspiration from the natural world featured in the costumes. One is the scar tree, used in traditional Victorian First Nations practices for centuries, the marker tree can be found throughout Victoria.

“We’ve created a jacket for Nicolette (Fraillon, Guest Conductor for THE HUM) that was inspired by the scar tree painting above." says Sax of her design, “I feel that sourcing natural pigments from the land rejuvenates Country.”

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Stewart Russell during the screen-printing process at Space Craft

Photo Annette Sax

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The wa~ring 'river is kin' fabric design by Annette Sax

Interconnectedness and reviving Country is pivotal to Sax’s work and she is a fierce advocate of First Nations artists creating work that uses traditional methods.

“As a people we want to be allowed to practice our ceremonies and reclaim our culture,” says Sax who now lives on Wurundjeri Country in Melbourne.

Her costumes are representative of this relationship with Country, and the connections that have developed throughout the creative process.

“I’ve been so inspired by everyone at Australian Dance Theatre and The Australian Ballet, this is my first time creating costumes, and I’m both nervous and excited. I’m quite new to the fashion industry.”

Before fashion Sax spent the past 20 years creating First Nations toys and homewares with Yarn Strong Sista, her company that specialises in early childhood education that supports Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

When asked about the concept of identity, Sax sees it as something much larger than a singular entity.

"As Aboriginal people we don't see ourselves as separate from our animal and bird kin, land and waterways. Identity is finding your place and people in the wider world."

The costumes created for THE HUM invoke a spiritual link and embrace the essence of wa~ring “river is kin’ in Taungurung language. They flow and work with Riley’s choreography and the bodies of the dancers. From flared skirts to vests inspired by waterfalls, this is a collection of costumes unlike anything ever seen before. Unique and moving, and the embodiment of culture and community, Sax’s costumes are a very special addition to THE HUM.

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One of Annette Sax's garments from the 2022 Nagambii collection that inspired THE HUM costumes.

Photo Nellie Maher

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Karra Nam and Lilla Harvey rehearsing THE HUM

Photo Christopher Rodgers-Wilson

To see Annette's costumes in person, click the button below and book your tickets to Identity.