Evie Ferris is a true gem! As a Taribelang/ Djabugay Woman, she is only the second Aborigional Australian woman to join the Australian Ballet company, and has so much wisdom to share about her journey. A big takeaway from this conversation for me was to always ask questions and make the conscious effort to grow and educate my knowledge about first nations, there is so much beautiful, rich history to be discovered… I hope this interview inspires you to continue your own learning journey. Hearing Evie’s perspective that she has cultivated along her path, whilst growing through experiences such as caring for her younger brother with Smith-Lemli-Opitz, undertaking yoga teacher training, and so much more, was so eye opening. She is simply a kind and wise soul, so without further ado… here’s a little look inside her mind!
Disclaimer* all of Evie’s amazing insights could not be put into a blog post word for word so answers have been condensed with her approval.
What is your current profession?
I am a corps de ballet member with The Australian Ballet Company.
Can you give an outline of your career path to date?
I started dancing at my local ballet school in Cairns, Queensland, at the age of three. I loved dancing in general and trained in all genres; tap, jazz, ballet, acro etc. At nine I was accepted into The Australian Ballet School’s ITP (International Training Program), which led me to audition for their full time program. Both my sister and I were accepted, so my whole family made the big move to Melbourne. I remained at the school for six years until joining the company in 2016.
Do you feel training in so many styles as a child has helped you grow into the ballerina and performer you are today?
Versatility in general will enhance whatever you do. Learning different dynamics and gaining the confidence to take all those genres to the stage has enhanced not just my ballet but me as an artist and performer in general.
Could you please explain what it means to identify as a Taribelang/ Djabugay Woman?
As an Indigenous Australian, we were the first people on this land. Our culture is very strong and we are doing our best to keep it alive. It’s a very important part of Australia’s history and Australia’s future.
My Aborigional Indigineous heritage comes from my fathers side. Taribelang hails from Bundaberg and that is where my paternal grandmother is from, so it is part of my bloodline. Djabugay comes from where I grew up in Cairns. These connections mean I identify with both cultures. Our Taribelang totems are a pelican and lungfish, both of which carry different symbolisms. Pelicans are symbols of love and sacrifice, stemming from the legend of pelicans giving their own blood and life in order to save their off-spring. Lungfish symbolise connection to dreams and ancestors and understanding dormancy.
How have you experienced learning about your Aborigional heritage?
*This is a joint response from both Evie and her sister Ella
We have actually really struggled to find information. Within Indigenous Australian culture there are over 250 language groups, none of which have much documentation… so much was lost during colonization. Our Taribelang side is extremely strong and connected, but even that is hard to get information on. Our Dad was born in 1960, and Aboriginal peoples weren’t put on the census till 67’ so we really have no available information on our family prior to our Dad. Information was also lost due to Aboriginals being considered flora and fauna (not human beings). When our grandparents were growing up, there were still separate drinking fountains and signs in buses stating “blacks to the back”. My grandparents were brought up in a very white community, so that also affected our ability to learn about our roots. We are currently in the process of reconnecting with our family in Bundaberg which is so exciting and we are so grateful to technology and social media for facilitating that. Our traditions are rooted in being passed down orally, so if you want to learn more about something you have to call someone, who will call someone else, who will call someone else etc. We often receive videos of uncle’s just sitting and having a conversation, and it’s up to us to decipher and learn from it. I know we’ve experienced (and I think our dad probably has too) not shame exactly, but a feeling of when people do ask about your culture, or you want to be able to share this kind of information because it’s so important and it’s a huge part of our identity, it is sometimes really conflicting to say “well I don’t actually know all of this deep stuff that I really want to know”. Sometimes that’s a really hard thing to experience. We can make a lot of Aboriginal people have this exact feeling. There’s actually a lot of support if you know where to find it, there’s also a lot of support in the community for people who have just recently identified as Aboriginal as well.
Do you have a favourite quote/poem/piece of art, if so could you share it?
“My ancestors were the first people to walk on this land. Those other girls were always going to come up against my ancestors. Who’s going to stop me?” – Cathy Freeman
Cathy Freeman is one of my idols, I find her so amazing! This quote is about her competing at the olympics. She is saying she has her ancestors backing her and that really resonated with me. It helped me realise it’s not just me, I’m not alone, I have my ancestors and this land with me always. It’s all about connection and support.
Do you have a morning routine?
My Mum buys me an affirmation calendar every year and reading that is part of my every morning. I also always have a cup of green tea and do some vinyasa yoga. Depending on what my day entails, I will do a 45-60 minute yoga flow, or a shorter one with more mediation. Before COVID, I would go to an in person class for an hour in the morning before company class (which is at 10:30, or 11 on performance days).
Dance and particularly dance as a vessel for story telling has a long history within Indigenous Australian culture. Do you feel this aspect of your culture has influenced your view of/ relationship with ballet?
Yes, definitely! I like to think I incorporate my culture, heritage, and identity into all aspects of my life, including (and almost especially ballet) as that is such a huge part of my life as well. Stories are passed on through vocal and physical means in Aborigional culture and it’s the same in ballet. Ballet doesn’t have the vocal, but it’s all through the physicality of dance, I feel that is such a beautiful way to tell a story. Maintaining my cultural connection reiterates to me how vital storytelling is and the importance of expressing it through art.
Your family decided to move from Cairns to Melbourne alongside you when you joined ABS. What did this transition look like for your family?
It was a massive decision for my family. I think I was too young to remember any particular moment of the decision being made, I was just overwhelmed by the excitement of my acceptance to ABS. I remember being scared that my family would make this massive transition and I wouldn’t end up liking ballet training, but i’m so lucky to have the most supportive family, and the move ended up being the best thing for all of us. Not only did coming to Melbourn allow my sister and I to attend ABS, but it also provided my brother the opportunity to attend Port Phillip Special School where he was supported for 10 years. The move seemed to fall in place very organically and my family is such a close unit that I know I wouldn’t be where I am today if they hadn’t come with me.
I feel a large component of the BLM movement was to give BIPOC voices the space to be heard. Do you feel this movement had an impact in Australia? Is there anything particular you would like to share for our audience to hear and grow from?
I feel the BLM movement really took the world by storm and definitely had an impact in Australia. It was so prominent all over social media, which I think has its benefits and its downfalls. It can be really overwhelming for a lot of people, but it was necessary and important because it’s opened up a lot of communication. It allowed people to feel comfortable saying, I don’t have any knowledge, I don’t know where to start. BLM provided a safe space for people who want to learn. Regardless of where you’re at with your knowledge, or your views, it was a really massive learning curve. We’re always learning, and even if it’s a hard lesson it’s worth it in the end. I think it’s the only way we create change.
In terms of something I want to say… find your truth and stay strong in it. Whatever your culture is and whatever your heritage is. Also, it’s okay to ask questions. Face those hard things, that’s the only way to create change. We have to be open, and we have to be able to communicate.
Sometimes BIPOC people won’t want to be bombarded by questions or talk about some really tough things which is definitely fair and valid, but I do also feel there needs to be a line of communication, otherwise how will people learn and grow. We just need to all respect each other equally.
How did you come to yoga? Was anything particular happening in your life at the time?
I dabbled in yoga for a long time and always loved it. I started turning to yoga very frequently when I was buying my first apartment at 21. I was so stressed and not sleeping, getting on the yoga mat every day was what really helped. It sounds contradictory that taking an hour out of my day when I was already stressed about how busy I was would be helpful, but spending that time for myself was so important. As a teenager I was an insomniac and my mind runs a million miles an hour, the more yoga I did the more I really appreciated how beneficial it was for these things. Dedicating that time on the mat to myself really did turn my whole life around.
What qualities within yourself did completing your YTT (yoga teacher training) speak to?
I felt so ready for the teacher training course. It’s funny how hard it is to speak about your own qualities, but I feel participating in that course really enhanced my confidence. It also gave me a massive sense of groundedness. I was saying before that my mind goes a million miles an hour, but I actually think I have quite a grasp on dealing with that and staying grounded in it. It took a lot of work to get to this place where I can slow down, rationalize, come back to myself, re-center, and feel grounded. I love that quality; I see it in myself, and I like to be able to share that with other people. Going into the teacher training I was really excited to grow my understanding of yoga and learn more about the philosophies etc, but I think along the way I also really found a passion for sharing yoga with others.
Being only the second BIPOC woman to join Aus Ballet how did you experience finding your version of this unique path?
*for readers interested, the first was Ella Havelka in 2013
I was definitely given the space to be my own dancer and not just put in a bracket with Ella as the two Aborigional dancers. We are two separate people and dancers, and I’m so grateful to have been given the space to cultivate my own uniqueness. Ella is such an inspiration and truly wonderful colleague and friend, and she really did pave the way for aborigional dancers in the company. She has done so much amazing work and has definitely inspired me to keep the ball rolling and continue spreading awareness.
I’ve always been proud of my heritage and The Australian Ballet Company has been so supportive in allowing me to bring that heritage into everything I do. I feel so grateful for the way Aus Ballet acknowledges and celebrates First Nation peoples in general.
Can you explain a bit about your brother’s condition (Smith-Lemli-Opitz)?
My brother has a really rare genetic disability called Smith- Lemli-Opitz (named after the three people who discovered it). There’s not a lot of information about it, and in some ways the doctors learn more from Gabriel during his visits than he does from the doctors. We were told he wouldn’t ever walk or talk and he used to be fed through a tube. He can actually do all those things now! He eats more than my sister and myself combined (without using the tube), he walks, talks, loves dancing… he’s just amazing! He is verbal, but not 100%, so communication can be hard. He also has autism which creates some additional barriers. Aggression is a big part of his disability and the medication he was on recently aggravated that. Situations like that can be hard and take a toll on you, but we all love him to death and wouldn’t have it any other way. I would be a completely different human without him in my life and I’m sure my whole family would say the same.
Has caring for your brother taught you any lessons that aid your artistic endeavours?
It’s given me a whole lot of compassion and resilience which helps me keep a thick skin in ballet. He’s also given me the perspective to not sweat the small stuff. All us perfectionist ballerinas are the same and it’s so easy to start beating ourselves up, and that is something I definitely contend with daily, but I also have the perspective of ‘I have my health, and there are bigger things and worse things’. It helps ease my perfectionism and not get so down about the little things that go wrong.
What perceived ‘failure’ has turned into your most helpful lesson on your journey thus far?
It’s not one specific thing for me, but it’s been the accumulation of all those little things that make you feel like you’ve failed, give you doubts, or a sense of shame over time. Learning to take that cumulative feelling, still keep going through it, and find the lessons in each day, is something I’m always working on. Each day will bring new challenges and it’s about growing your toolbox of strategies to cope with anything that day brings.
They say the pen is mightier than the sword, so if you could scribe one word to use as your weapon in life what would it be?
It sounds so cliche, but ‘kill them with kindness’. The kindness I’ve been shown throughout my story is something I want to continue giving others. I also try to give kindness to myself because I think that is so underrated. Kindness has a place in every aspect of life, for example in BLM,or when caring for the environment. If we all showed even a little kindness, we could truly change the world and make some amazing things happen.
Do you feel your art influences your day to day tasks, and visa versa?
Definitely! It’s funny how even walking down the street people pull you up and ask if you’re a ballerina (I think it’s how we hold ourselves). There’s a discipline cultivated by ballet that enters all areas of our lives. My art is within me so therefore it comes into everything I do… even if I don’t realise it at the time.
Anything less than exuberant enthusiasm when it comes to ballet and training can sometimes make you feel ashamed or like you’re failing. 2020 definitely had its moments where enthusiasm was hard. Can you speak to your experience with this?
Doubt, self deprecation, not feeling enough… it’s all inevitable, especially in or just after the trials of 2020. One of the beautiful things about ballet is there’s always room for improvement but it can be detrimental when we stop believing in ourselves or acknowledging our achievements.
2020 had times when you suddenly had no motivation and that was terrifying! Ballet is not just a job or a hobby, it’s our life and it’s our passion. It was so scary when I would sit down to move the table and set up for another zooom class and think, I don’t want to do this. Every now and then those thoughts would pop up and I’d be like ‘where did that come from?’. I think every dancer probably went through moments of that. A huge lesson for me last year was to not judge those thoughts. I would really panic and go ‘why am I so unmotivated? I’m not even doing anything, so why am I tired?’. I definitely had to make a conscious effort to not judge those thoughts and just ride that wave. Sometimes I would have to tell myself ‘today, I’m just going to do barre, then I will sit in the sun with a cup of tea’. Thoughts of hating ballet were so scary when you know you didn’t and don’t hate ballet. We are human, sometimes you wake up and just don’t want to do things, that’s perfectly okay!
In what ways would you like to see readers’ minds expand with this interview?
On the Aboriginal culture side, just that there’s so much to learn and whilst there’s a lot of education to happen, the information is all there. Let’s not be intimidated to talk, share, and communicate. The arts industry should (and I feel increasingly does) represent the diversity of our society.
There’s so much we don’t know. We don’t know what some people might be thinking or feeling, and so if we’re just really open, honest, and authentic we’ll be on the right track to do good things for each other, for the world, for the arts, and for BIPOC peoples.
You can find Evie on IG @evieferris
Featured Pic credit: Kate Longley
*BIPOC- Black, Indigenous and People of Colour
*BLM- Black Lives Matter