The Australian Ballet

Sight and sound: Deborah Cheetham-Fraillon on composing for THE HUM

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Deborah Cheetham-Fraillon and Daniel Riley
Photo Jonathan van der Knaap

Deborah Cheetham Fraillon AO has an ever-growing list of accolades and accomplishments to her name. As the composer of Daniel Riley’s, THE HUM, Deborah can include the first ever Indigenous composer to be commissioned by The Australian Ballet to her resume. In this interview Deborah talks about her process of creating music and what Identity means to her.

Process and People: Making THE HUM

Process is all to me. Take care of that and the outcome will be even greater than your imagination can allow you to dream. Especially with the ensemble of committed, experienced and talented human beings we have on stage for this project.

It begins with building individual relationships with the dancers and of course the choreographer. But it's also building relationships with every other person in the room who bring their energy on any given day. From the expertise of a production crew to the lighting designer or costume designer. There is a village of people that make a piece of theatre, and the closer your relationship with each member of that village, the more rewarding the process is.

The last two years of pandemic has highlighted the dislocation that we felt from one another. Those relationships were inhibited by online interactions. Now that we're back in the room I'm sensing a need for those relationships to be as strong as possible to support this new work.

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Deborah Cheetham-Fraillon and Daniel Riley
Photo Jonathan van der Knaap

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Zachary Lopez, Karra Nam and Katherine Sonnekus, THE HUM (Riley), 2023
Photo Daniel Boud

“The more rewarding the process then the more magical the outcome.” — Deb­o­rah Cheetham-Frail­lon AO

Creating an environment of kinship and camaraderie

There have been some wonderful relationship building exercises that Dan (Riley) has taken the ensemble through, one of my favourites was from the first day. The dancers worked through a trust exercise I’d never seen before. A dancer would call in a vocal gesture and the ensemble, who were close by, would come and catch their fall, it was beautiful, it was so life affirming.

It made me want to be up on the parquet and participating. And yet I also wanted to be the voyeur, I wanted to watch these relationships ebb and flow. It was only minutes, but it felt infinite. There was an infinite amount of trust and creativity in the way that someone would entrust their body to the waiting arms of their fellow dancers.

Rehearsal Room

I felt I needed to be in the room as early as I could each day, and that begins with class. If you have that opportunity, it's a real gift to actually be in the moment of creation from the choreographer’s mind or the dancer’s body. Straight to you as a gesture that then I can reinterpret through music any number of ways and bring back to the choreographer and the dancers and say, “how about this?”

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Lilla Harvey and Karra Nam, THE HUM (Riley), 2023
Photo Daniel Boud

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Artists of The Australian Ballet and Australian Dance Theatre, THE HUM (Riley), 2023
Photo Daniel Boud

“We're going to piece together this jigsaw puzzle and only when we've done that will we know what the picture was. There's a freedom in that.” — Deb­o­rah Cheetham-Frail­lon AO

Rhythm is a dancer

The power of muscle memory from dancers never ceases to amaze me, but that's also something that musicians share. There were a few dancers who were keen to explore the immediacy of a relationship directly with a musician. I give freedom during the development process to each of the ensemble members to create the rhythm, the texture and the experience that they feel most powerful in.

When you've been in the dance world long enough you realise that each dancer counts in their own unique way. As long as they understand the gesture they're making and they can articulate that, numbers or words are unnecessary. Show me the gesture. Let me feel it. Let me watch you move through it. Count it out if you like. Use nonsense syllables if you like. As long as I know where the points of connection are, I can reinterpret that as music and see what grows from the process. I can take that abstraction and make it something concrete.

Internal Pulse

Find your pulse. Multiply it, subtract, or match it, and that is the start of your rhythm.

Add to that: thought, emotion, reacting to something in the room and build it into your movement. There is no wrong gesture in this.

Trusting the process

Trust yourself that if it doesn't feel right the first time that you'll come back and you'll reinvent and reinvent and reinvent until it does. This is often where I get to in composition, I'll extemporise for hours at the piano and I'll find a fragment of a melody and maybe I don't write it down quickly enough and it'll evaporate. I used to panic about that early on in my in my life as a composer, I don't anymore, because I think wherever that came from, it's still there, if that's truthfully what needs to be on the page, it will.

Finding meaning and creating narrative

Watching a narrative unfold within an ensemble that is not articulating in words is like flying. It's like suddenly you can fly, you're watching something that is unfettered in a sense. There were only five moves, but the decision-making process within that was almost, well, infinite.

“Keep every idea you might not use every one of them. But keep them all.” — Deb­o­rah Cheetham-Frail­lon AO
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Deborah Cheetham-Fraillon and Daniel Riley with Artists of The Australian Ballet and Australian Dance Theatre
Photo Jonathan van der Knaap

Understanding Identity

Identity is about really understanding your belonging. I've had a lot of titles in and labels in my life. Some that have resonance within the entire Australian community, some that have resonance in the larger world beyond our shores: Soprano, Composer, Lesbian, Yorta Yorta, Stolen Generation.

None of these titles or labels have any weight or currency without the fundamental need to understand my belonging. If I don't understand my belonging, then these are all just things that I do, or are the way that I'm perceived by others. Some of them are very important to the way I live my life and the communities that I live in. But without a deep sense of belonging and understanding none of those labels would make any sense. They would all be diminished.

“It’s one of the most outstanding dance scores by a living composer I’ve heard: drama-filled, melodic and showcasing a mastery of musical structure and storytelling.” — Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald on THE HUM
A dancer dancing on a stage, looking away with their arms behind them against an earthy coloured background.


  • Sydney / Warrang May 2023
  • Melbourne / Naarm June 2023