“We were always told we were nothing and that we didn’t deserve anything and that we were society’s rats and no one wanted us… we were called vermin,” recalls Jessie.
“We weren’t a very close family,” says Paul. “We were all separated into twos in institutions or foster care.”
Jessie and Paul Morwood along with Marlene Wilson are part of an estimated 500,000 Forgotten Australians – children and young people who experienced institutional or other out-of-home care in the last century in Australia, many of whom suffered physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse while in this care.
In early 2017, the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, in collaboration with London’s Royal Ballet, partnered with several community organisations in Brisbane and Cairns, and delivered a community dance project titled We All Dance. The project brought together participants whose interests and abilities varied wildly. Recently arrived Syrian refugees, people living in regional communities, homeless people, young people, old people, clusters of friends and total strangers.
It’s challenging and daunting to embark on a journey with a mystery ending. Taking a step across a threshold, trying something you’ve never tried before, meeting new people or finding yourself in a situation you never imagined.
One of the partner organisations in Brisbane was Micah Projects and I was paired with them as their teaching artist. Micah Projects is a not-for-profit organisation committed to providing services and opportunities in the community in the search for justice. Micah Projects engages with people experiencing adversity due to poverty, homelessness, mental illness, domestic violence, disability, and discrimination due to age, gender or sexual orientation.
Creative projects can be an opportunity to reframe ourselves, others and subsequently, the way we relate to the world around us. Jessie, Paul and Marlene, three siblings took the leap of faith and signed up to participate in We All Dance.
I sat down with the siblings some four months after the project has concluded. They begin to reminisce about the workshops, the unlikely cast of characters that came together to be part of them and the varied paths they’d taken to arrive there. The conversation turns to their own childhood histories. Tears are shed.
Jessie, Paul and Marlene did not grow up together. Their memories are painful. Through We All Dance they re-found feelings of hope and joy through their shared creative experiences. As they talk it’s clear that taking part in the project has left a constructive imprint on them and continues to impact positively on their everyday lives. In part, through participating in the project they have been able to reframe their current circumstances and reassess their existing negative beliefs about themselves steeped in their lived histories. Paul tells us, “all through my life I’ve been put down and told I’m nothing… I was like a lost child. I was nobody’s child. No one loved me, I grew up with hate. Now I know someone does”.
As it happens, all three siblings were involved in ballet and dance at a young age, initially signed up by their grandmother (their guardian at the time) to keep their brother company in the ballet class. Ballet was suggested by a local doctor to help counter the effects of their brother’s turned in feet.
“Eventually two of us, Jessie and I went to the Queensland Ballet School on Elizabeth Street in the city. I was the last one who kept going. I did eight years of ballet. I was ridiculed left, right and centre when I went to school. Unfortunately, the teacher at Queensland Ballet told my grandmother that I would not be accepted by major companies because of my height, so I gave it away,” recalls Paul.
Creative projects can be an opportunity to reframe ourselves, others and subsequently, the way we relate to the world around us
Each sibling had different reasons that drew them to the project but Paul took some extra convincing from Jessie to finally join up.
“I wasn’t ready for it. I wanted to say ‘no Jess’ but then I said ‘ok I’ll give it a go’.” He continues, “I’ve always loved dancing. It’s been in my blood all this time. Then I had this opportunity to dance with The Royal Ballet, and with Jessie’s help, it made me a little bit stronger and made me think I can do it”.
Jessie recalls the significant impact of the project on her brother.
“This project saved Paul’s life. I was really worried he was going to kill himself because he was so depressed. I was really frightened. So when this came along it was like a lifeline. That is why I tried so hard to get him involved. He was so much younger only after a couple of weeks, it was like he was totally rejuvenated and he came alive.”
Marlene, the eldest of the siblings, has always channelled her creativity through drawing and painting, but found that being involved in a dance project had surprising outcomes in addition to creative expression.
“At the beginning I could hardly move – by the end of it I could put my walker away and to the side. My body changed so much in that time. I was so full of joy and fun.
“The project made such a difference to our life and everyone who was involved. I have friends now from other groups that performed and when we get together we get so excited because we both experienced the same thing but in different groups. People who were homeless in our group – people who were struggling in everyday life – their lives have changed dramatically.”
As our conversation begins to wind up, the siblings lean forward on the couch opposite me. Marlene holds the hands of Jessie and Paul seated on either side of her and says, “we have worth,” her voice cracks.
As I play back our recorded conversation to write this article, I hear the whispered voices of the three siblings.
“I love you,” breathes from the tape player. The recording ended but for Jessie, Paul and Marlene, the experience lingers on.
Sandi Woo is a Brisbane-based independent producer, dance artist, community development facilitator and teaching artist. For over 20 years, Sandi has worked in the arts industry both as a freelancer and within established organisations in Western Australia, New South Wales and now Queensland. Most recently Sandi has worked with Philip Channels and Gavin Webber on an inclusive project (No Difference); as a teaching artist on QPAC’s season of The Royal Ballet and Micah Projects community project We All Dance, as Producer for Annette Carmichael (Denmark, WA) and as the Regional Dance Consultant for Ausdance Qld. Sandi believes in the power of the creative process to reflect, learn, and observe ourselves in daily life.
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(L to R): Marlene, Jessie, Paul.
We All Dance Workshop participants. Photo: Fenlan Photography.
(L to R): Jessie, Marlene, Paul.