It is early on the morning of a public holiday, and Daniel Riley, the artistic director at Australian Dance Theatre (ADT), is working. He’s found a moment between rehearsals — at the time, the company was performing two original works in separate cities — to reflect on the path that has brought him here. “I remember being picked up from either soccer or cricket, depending on the season, and swinging via the dance studio to pick up my sister,” he says. Riley soon joined in, the only boy in a room full of girls, tap shoes on his feet. “I’ve got really beautiful memories of being young and having so much fun dancing,” he says.
Serendipitously, it was through ADT’s founder and inaugural artistic director, Dr Elizabeth Cameron Dalman OAM, that he discovered contemporary dance. Riley was living in Canberra at the time and his father, a primary teacher, sought the advice of Dalman, who was offering classes at the school. “Our spirals connected very early on, when I was 12, then our spirals kind of went like this,” says Riley, rotating his fingers away from each other. “And then we’ve connected again this way, with me leading this company.”
After 12 years as a senior artist and choreographer at the esteemed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander company Bangarra Dance Theatre, and a stint as an independent artist and collaborator, Riley replaced ADT’s outgoing director, Garry Stewart, in 2022. The appointment makes him the first Aboriginal artistic director at a non-First Nations dance company. “I have this beautiful opportunity to hold space for artists,” says Riley, “and to be the one to facilitate artistic exchange and growth, and collaboration and relationship building.”
Through dance, Riley has been able to connect more deeply with his Aboriginal heritage. “I didn’t grow up on Country,” he says. “I didn’t grow up surrounded by my Wiradjuri community.” It was only while touring Dubbo, NSW, during his tenure at Bangarra Dance Theatre, that he learned
of the significance of his surname. This inspired the first work he choreographed, “Riley” (2010), which centres on the work of a cousin, the late Michael Riley, an acclaimed photographer and filmmaker. Riley describes this piece as dipping a “toe back into my kinship system”.
In his latest work, “Tracker”, Riley explores more of his family story through a multidisciplinary production that utilises dance, text, visual art and song (the national tour continues to Brisbane, from September 20–23, and regional South Australia, from October 31 to November 9). “All the important pillars of our First Nations storytelling,” he explains. One of Riley’s first works since joining the company, it explores the life of his great-great-uncle Alec “Tracker” Riley, a Wiradjuri Elder who served in the police force as a tracker. Alec’s career success — which included solving the missing persons case of Desmond Clark, a two-year-old boy who disappeared near his home — saw him become the first Aboriginal person to gain the rank of sergeant in the New South Wales police force.
“There’s this incredible kind of strength in a Blak man wearing a colonially implemented uniform in service to a crown that was dispossessing of us — of our land, our lore, our language, our family, our sense of belonging and self,” Riley says. “Yet he served; he felt a great responsibility for the people who lived on our country and who trod on that land.”
Upon his retirement in 1950, after four decades of service, Alec received a watch from the government. At the time, Aboriginal people were not eligible for a pension; it wasn’t until 16 years later that Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders became entitled to pensions, as well as maternity and unemployment benefits. “He didn’t care what colour they were, but they cared what colour he was,” says Riley. “That respect was never mutual.”
With “Tracker”, Riley aims to give his great-great-uncle the respect he never received outside of his community during his lifetime. “ ‘Tracker’ is the very first fully self-determined Blak work that ADT has ever presented,” says Riley. Created with the support of Ilbijerri Theatre Company, the work is produced by a team of First Nations creatives, including Alec’s granddaughters, whose recollections of spending time with Alec by the river — where he cooked for them and told them off for taking fruit from his trees — are intrinsically woven into the show. “As the first First Nations artistic director of ADT, I think it’s really important that I can tell these stories,” says Riley. “For me, it’s just been such a joy and a privilege to tell the tale of a man nobody really knew.”
There’s a moment in the work, an exploration of the Clark case, when Alec is shown discovering the young boy’s bones. A lullaby plays, a song about the moon waking the boy and leading him to a place to sleep under the stars. The poem is read by Riley’s then five-year-old son, the youngest of the tracker’s lineage to contribute to the show. In fact, Alec had known a year earlier — when Clark had first gone missing — where to look for him, but he had been blocked from entering a white landowner’s property on account of being Aboriginal. “Uncle Alec waited for that old man to pass, out of respect, and then he went to the mother and said, ‘I know where he is,’ ” says Riley.
The production’s final, haunting image is of a dancer putting on a police jacket then a bag of stones being poured over him. “For me, the image and the sound of that is incredibly powerful,” says Riley. “The stones acting as bones or bodies, but also the cultural weight that all First Nations contemporary artists feel — that we are representing a legacy. I am very, very far down river from my ancestors and my artistic Elders and cultural Elders, you know? So there is an ongoing kind of cultural weight to that.”
Is it a burden, carrying that cultural weight? “We are the oldest contemporary dance company in the country, so we are the Elder of contemporary dance in this country,” says Riley, who feels strongly that he is where he’s meant to be. “If I can facilitate storytelling that questions and interrogates the social, cultural, racial and political complexities of Australia, of Australian-ness, and what it is to be Australia, then I feel like I would’ve succeeded in why I’ve been here.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a burden at all,” he continues. “I find it’s an opportunity.”