Dance is not just for girls!

Dance rehearsals for the MAXed OUT Company are intense this week in the Baradine Hall in the build up to the Moorambilla 2016 Gala Concert. All the high school students in the Company sing, dance and play taiko. From the remote central western mining town of Cobar comes Blake Toomey in year 12 and Laine Ellicott in year 9 at Cobar High School. Moorambilla regional dance intern Tainga Savage is also from Cobar. 

“Dance has the profound power to enrich and transform lives, connecting with people of all ages and backgrounds,” says Jacob Williams, Queensland Ballet’s Education Coordinator, on site at Moorambilla Voices in Baradine.

Dance is a unique language that has creative and educational benefits for children of all ages. And it makes you feel good! For young men dance develops physical coordination and strength. It has also been discovered to stimulate the release of a brain-derived protein that promotes the growth, maintenance, and plasticity of the neurons necessary for learning and memory! Add to that the promotion of wellbeing and helping to improve mood and concentration, it’s no wonder that dancing makes young men feel good!

Blake is studying music for his HSC, learning the bass guitar. Moorambilla’s MAXed OUT Company is the only chance he has to express himself with dance. “The atmosphere is amazing here,” says Blake. “It’s a place where you can just be you and enjoy the arts you like. It’s the most welcoming environment and if there is one place on earth that I get to dance, it’s here.”

“You have to work hard if you want to study in the arts out here. Because of our isolation in Cobar, I study my music classes through Distance Education in Dubbo.

“You can’t sit back. It takes three and a half hours to travel to Dubbo for my music classes, which means I also miss a whole day of school.”

Blake is planning to study education at university next year and is thinking about teaching as a career. “Moorambilla is the company that has taken me out of my shell. I’d like to give something back to this project and come back next year as a supervisor.”

Laine isn’t studying music at school, but takes dance classes at the Western Studio of Performing Arts in Cobar in hip hop, jazz and contemporary dance. “I really like the way that Tainga teaches us how to hear the music, like the beat and the rhythm. And I love making up moves when we get a chance to do some of our own choreography.

“I would say to any boys who are shy about dancing – go for it, you are not going to be judged for it. It’s fun!” says Blake.

“I would say to any boy, don’t be scared to dance,” says Laine. “It’s not just for girls!”

Text: Lliane Clarke
Photography: Noni Carroll.

Teaching artistry


Jacob Williams, Queensland Ballet’s Education Coordinator, is teaching and choreographing dance at Moorambilla. He’s passionate about the benefits of children learning live dance from teaching artists and the way that he, as an educator, can enhance and extend this experience.

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“Dance has the profound power to enrich and transform lives, connecting with people of all ages and backgrounds,” says Jacob. “It’s an art form that allows for the expression of both individuals and communities. It’s a defining aspect of being human and it has been a cornerstone of many cultures and civilisations.”

“At Moorambilla the entire education framework is artistic,” says Jacob. “It’s a rich teaching environment,” he explains. “We’re not in a dance studio where technique and competition rehearsals can often dominate class-time, and we’re not in a school, which adheres to a strict curriculum. Here, we are somewhere in the middle.”

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“Moorambilla gives me a lot of educational space. I’m able to push the students out of their comfort zones as they work creatively – coming up with ideas and dance movements themselves. And it’s changed over the time I’ve been working here. I’m delighted that I’m currently providing the same choreographic activities to the young primary children as I have done to the high school group two years ago.”

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The Moorambilla children come from 78 different schools across the region, with different education backgrounds. What most of them have in common is a rare access to dance – particularly of this calibre.

“Some children find themselves moving without thinking! And they’ve told me that they’ve never experienced this before,” says Jacob. “For me that’s an incredibly successful outcome! They’ve managed to embody the concept, allowing their movement to flow naturally from within, which is what we want.”

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There’s always a strong culture of collaboration at Moorambilla, with composers on site in Baradine to work with the choreographer. “The artistry and the music is live here. I love working with Andrew Howes to weave the music and movement together for MAXed OUT,” says Jacob. “Plus we have an incredible pianist in Ben Burton, The Song Company, and the percussion artists from Taikoz. We’re modelling the collaborative process in real-time. There are no dance backing tracks here.”

Tainga Savage from Cobar is enthusiastic about being this year’s Regional Dance Intern. “I’ve never been involved with such a large number of children or on a professional production like this,” says Tai. “While I am largely self taught and come from a hip-hop background, I’m learning a lot from Jacob’s incredible techniques and teachings.”

“Observing all art heightens and develops your senses,” says Jacob. “I’m very passionate about it. It’s an aesthetic experience where all senses are engaged, opening up the neural pathways to help us feel more from the world around us, developing insights that might not have been possible.”


“Having said that, the real power of art is in the making. And that’s certainly true in dance. Yes the physical benefits are obvious – fitness, health and stamina. But there are other benefits equally powerful – a kind of enforced collaboration where leadership and communication, empathy and above all a strong relationship with music can be nurtured.”

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“Michelle has fostered a community of students which have a raw talent, one that has not been limited or restricted by codified techniques, enabling them to spontaneously explore and develop their own unique movements.

“This is a key point. Between the artistry and the education, lies the dance.”

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Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach—according to George Bernard Shaw, who also wrote that he never learned anything from a teacher, he taught himself everything; so maybe GBS had a little axe to grind. He got it quite wrong—the truth is that those who can do two things well, at the same time, in almost any setting, are teaching artists. (Eric Booth)


Text: Lliane Clarke
Photography: Noni Carroll.


It’s time to reach for the stars

Day one of Moorambilla Voices Residential Camps 2016 and Camp Cypress is ringing with the sound of 76 excited primary school boys from right across the north-west region. The very first day is always pumped with anticipation.

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Artistic Director Michelle Leonard welcomed the boys in through a rainbow of bubbles for their first session of music.

Artistic Director Michelle Leonard welcomes the boys to Baradine through a rainbow of bubbles for their first session of music.

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Alison Hinch (right), the Assistant Principal of Collenerabri Central School, has travelled in with Jaylen Walford and his nan Pauline Walford. “Our school is a small central school, with classes from K – 12 with a high Aboriginal population,” explains Alison. “This is our first year here and Jaylen and two of our primary school girls are representing our school. They’re all so excited to come!”

For Braydon Jones from Cobar Public School, Moorambilla is the only opportunity he has to sing in a choir. “I watched the concert last year and I can’t wait to have my turn to sing in the Dubbo Theatre,” he says. Like man of the boys, Braydon loves the “great food and staying with my friends in the cabins.”

Inspired by the stars and horizons of the outback landscape around Mount Grenfell near Cobar, composer William Yaxley spent the first day on fragments of his 2016 commission Kirralaa, (from the Ngiampaa language word for star). It tells the story of a falling star who wants to join people dancing on the earth. The resulting performance in September will bring to life the stars and horizons of the ancient rocky landscape.

Queensland Ballet Education Coordinator Jacob Williams and intern Tainga Savage work with the boys to create movement shapes. As the sun sets behind the Baradine Hall, the boys experiment and dance with beautiful miniature candles.

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Liz Anderson has been a supervisor for five years at Moorambilla and has three boys in the program. “The Moorambilla energy is just phenomenal,” she says “and Michelle is amazing to watch work with the children!”

Text: Lliane Clarke
Photography: Noni Carroll.

Go to the bend in the river

Interweaving new Australian choral music with contemporary dance is taking composer Andrew Howes and choreographer Jacob Williams into new territory at Moorambilla residential camps in 2015.

IMG_3139 “Narran Lakes was what I call an ‘ice bath’ to my system,” says Andrew. “I jumped off the plane straight from the intensity of London and drove on the same day to the utter stillness of the lakes. It was exactly what I needed – and I didn’t know that until I got there! The stillness was the best thing. It was so dense and yet also clear.”

Andrew has just graduated in composition at the Royal College of Music in London with first class honours. He got on a plane to meet Artistic Director Michelle Leonard and fellow artists at Narran Lakes.

“At the end of the Narran Lakes journey, I hadn’t settled on any ideas but my mind was full of thoughts and fragments – mental thoughts and notes – that’s how composition works for me,” says Andrew.


“Michelle invites us to play inside our brains. To come up with ways to generate ideas – connecting story and landscape, and how those stories connect to each other.”

“I like more of a formal structure,” says Jacob. “I want a framework at the beginning and I’m eager for the composers to commence writing and committing to ideas so I can start drawing inspiration from their work.”

“At Moorambilla the children in our rehearsals create movements through choreographic activities that I devise and then the composers draw from the movements to create music. We create the movement and music simultaneously, frequently checking in with each other and watching each other’s rehearsals so that we create a holistic piece.”


Moorambilla composers work under the pressure of time – they have the children for only 3-4 days which generally means writing music overnight. “How do I feel about that?,” says Andrew. “Well I don’t believe in writers block!” he laughs.


“No seriously, I tend to think that you can make music out of anything if you can see possibilities – and Michelle thinks the same way which is why I really love working with her. There are thousands of possible ways to turn a bad idea around. We find the first good idea and improvise on that. It helps that all of the other Moorambilla artists are incredibly skilled music interpreters and fast sight readers!”

“I needed to know the level of expertise in the choir, so I sent a vocal exercise to Michelle to work out the level of the MAXed OUT choir. I am pleased to say they were at the highest level of my expectation,” says Andrew.


To create the choral piece, called Go To the Bend in the River, Andrew talked with Rhonda Ashby, Lightning Ridge Language Nest Language Consultant. “Rhonda said something that really struck me,” says Andrew. “When she told me the creation story, she said that Baime went to the bend in the river, to the black dirt, to cut off the waterway deep underground. This is the Narran River with all its billabongs, and he knew he could stop the crocodiles there.


“I didn’t necessarily want to depict that actual story but I wanted to find something within it that I connected with. So I wrote a piece using that imagery. The piece is really about about searching and finding lost things.

“I used the Gamilaroi language that Rhonda Ashby gave me – and focused on two words in particular –yanaaya (go) and baanaga-y (run). “

The resulting piece, ‘Go to the Bend on the River’ is written for the MAXed OUT choir, with its own chamber choir, Song Company, piano and drums. Andrew will also orchestrate a string quartet, sax and shakuhachi between the August residency and the rehearsals for the September performance.


When it became time to work with Jacob Williams to create a dance piece, Jacob was already looking at floor work.

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“I wanted more work on the floor this year to showcase the developing sophistication of the teenagers,” says Jacob. “Michelle liked the floor work in rehearsals so that became significant component of the dance, and then I worked with Andrew to create movement based on migratory birds.”


“We identified a smaller group of talented students to create their own choreographic response to the themes of bones, water, sand and birds as well as Frank Wright’s artwork. This movement was then taught to the larger group.”

“Then I manipulated this phrase, altering the movement qualities to reflect an internal rhythm – which meant it was not set to counts. As Andrew composed music for this section, I continued to play with movement, consulting with Michelle, and altering its rhythm until we were all very happy. This was exciting as neither of us had worked so closely with someone else before like this.”

“I call it supported risk taking,” says Andrew. “It’s hard to fail at that.”

“Because we were experimenting together we didn’t feel at risk – we just decided that we would keep working on it until we got it! And we did!” says Jacob.

“I cannot wait to show our audiences what we have created this year. What a remarkable 10th birthday gift!”, says Michelle.

Text and photography: Lliane Clarke






Raising boys – through the power of music and dance

Creating new Australian music, immersing remote and regional children in creativity and celebrating their remarkable energy has always been the driving creative force of Moorambilla Voices – ever since its inception ten years ago in 2006. Every year young boys lap up the rare opportunity that Moorambilla presents them – to sing and dance and unleash their imaginative side.


“Most Australian country boys have little chance to express themselves creatively either through singing or dancing – and we wanted to change that. Give them an option, another way of seeing themselves and celebrate it,” says Artistic Director Michelle Leonard.

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Michelle is selecting repertoire for the boys to sing and it’s not easy! “We’ve created such a huge volume of Australian music over the past ten years, it’s actually hard to pick” says Michelle.

High on the list is some ‘classic’ Moorambilla music – ‘Baiame Ngunnhu’ by Elena Kats Chernin’s, ‘Sticks and Stones’ by Andrew Howes from 2014 and ‘La Nina’ by Luke Byrne in 2010. But that’s not all the boys have to learn.



Moorambilla has always had a deep commitment and respect for the power of the region’s Indigenous heritage. This year the program is inspired by the legends and landscape of the rare and beautiful Narran Lakes Nature Reserve.

Photograph by Noni Carroll

Photograph by Noni Carroll

While composer in residence Alice Chance’s popular Pallah-Pallah is also in the 10th Birthday repertoire, this year Alice is writing a new piece inspired by the artist’s tour to Narran Lakes. Alice works with Michelle and pianist Ben Burton, developing lyrics told to her recently by Gamilaroi Elder Aunty Brenda about a boy who took a rock from the land, and was plagued by trouble until he gave it back. She encourages the boys to add lyrics of their own. And gives them a taste of a piano accordion she bought in Belgium recently!


After morning tea, Moorambilla contemporary choreographer Jacob Williams engages the boys in dance workshops. “Even posture is a challenge for a lot of people!” laughs Jacob. “But these regional boys dance really well. They learn a lot of material in a very short time! There was a vast improvement in just 15 minutes.”

“I love collaborating with the Moorambilla boys and developing something that will showcase their strengths. Over the next couple of days they will create movement of their own.”

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Jacob grew up in Dubbo, a larger regional centre that gave him the chance to experience dance. “I had three sisters who danced before me so I was lucky I could just join their studio. Boys don’t have a lot of expectations to dance – there wasn’t many boys who were dancing while I was growing up in Dubbo.”

Jacob works on a movement that is slow and sustained. “That requires a lot of strength and discipline and technique – it becomes more obvious if you are not in unison,” explains Jacob. “It’s about moving slow and keeping energy in your arms – the intent behind the movement. By the second day, the Moorambilla boys really understood the beginnings of it.”




From his experience of Narran Lakes, Jacob divides the boys into groups of four around different themes – water from the lake, sand by the lakeside, animal bones, and birdlife. “I wanted large movements to reflect the expansiveness of the space without being too literal – I want to take an element of various concepts and put them into a new context.”

Jacob says boys are often braver than girls when faced with a new creative medium. “They will really have a go and commit – it’s our job to keep their focus.”

“Working with professional composers, dancers and musicians gives these boys an opportunity that they find almost impossible to access where they live,” says Michelle. “We are so proud of the legacy of creativity we are leaving with these young primary school  boys.”

Text and photography: Lliane Clarke


Opportunity Knocks – Iyasa!

MAXed OUT Company is back in rehearsal on Dhinawan, the MAXed OUT segment of this year’s Gala Concert.  Very, very few high schools offer music to HSC level in this region – with ensemble experience rare and opportunities to perform few.


Some of the teenagers have been practicing their contemporary and taiko choreography at home, calling out Iyasa! as they do. Some have memorized their music, some have been in school musicals, some have had support at home, some have not. One thing is clear in Baradine Memorial Hall – all of the 51 teenagers are excited to be back, seeing friends they only see twice a year, and working hard together for the highest standard of performance they can deliver.

MAXed OUT signs in with Camp Manager Dot Thompson and Moorambilla Mum Dianne Holz

MAXed OUT signs in with Camp Manager Dot Thompson and Moorambilla Mum Dianne Holz



Coonabarabran High School produces a musical every two years. Annabel Park had a few parts in the show this year and has been hard at work at home memorising Andrew Batt-Rawden’s piece Earth, Sky, Bird written especially for MAXed OUT. She’s practised her taiko dance moves too, so she can step up alongside the professional musicians at Moorambilla.

Annabel Park and friends

Annabel Park (second from right) greets her friends in Baradine.

Abigail Irving only has one performance opportunity this year, and “Moorambilla is it for me!” says the Warren Central School student. “I’m so looking forward to the Gala Concert. I love Moorambilla Voices because it gives me this chance to perform – it’s why I’ve done it for two years.”

Abigail Irving: "this is my only performance opportunity."

Abigail Irving: “this is my only performance opportunity.”

Working alongside professionals who are at the top of their field, and Australian composers writing world premieres for the Company, fires up the young performers. Nathan Lenord from Lightning Ridge Central School is happy to be back, and while he sang in his school musical about opals last week, he loves working with professionals like Artistic Director Michelle Leonard and the TaikOz percussionists.

Ryuji Hameda from TaikOz rehearses the fan dance with MAXed OUT. Working with professionals is a hallmark of Moorambilla.

Ryuji Hameda from TaikOz rehearses the fan dance with MAXed OUT. Working with professionals is a hallmark of Moorambilla.

Hayden Priest from Gilgandra High School and Katie Colwell from Coonamble High have also been practising every day at home. Anton Lock from TaikOz gave the children stretching exercises, to maintain upper body strength for their impressive Japanese fan dance, as well as many rhythmic and vocal exercises to practice. “I’m so looking forward to our Moorambilla concert,” says Hayden. “I love Moorambilla.”

Hayden Priest and Katie Colwell take a break in rehearsal

Hayden Priest and Katie Colwell take a break in rehearsal

Learning their music in the break is paying off. “The Gala Concert is going to be amazing,” says Katie. “I know we’re going to nail it.”


Text and photography: Lliane Clarke

Dancing with Sensu – Japanese Fans

The drums of TaikOz are beating so hard you can hear them down the end of the main street of Baradine. “I knew we had a large group this year so we have planned something really special says TaikOz’s Anton Lock.


Anton has been working with the high school children for the last three days, incorporating dance, music and percussion into the plan for the Moorambilla Gala Concert. It’s his fourth year here.

“I want to challenge some of the kids rhythmically, so we’ve created a separate group for them. Last year I thought the dancing worked really well, so I wanted to push some of the kids in that area with dancing and drumming at the same time.

“I’ve always had an idea to use a Japanese dancing fan, or sensu, with these kids – it’s such a beautiful thing. A professional fan maker in Tokyo made them for us and even though they are normally elaborate designs and different colours, the white was so simple and matched beautifully with the incredible backdrop created this year, we had to use them.


Anton Lock demonstrates the traditional Japanese dance with the sensu fan.


MAXed OUT participants begin learning           hand movements.


Learning to hold strong lower body movements and delicate hand movements.

“The fan dance exposes a juxtaposition of strength and delicacy – the fan movements have a kind of feminine energy and I like that for guys as well as the girls to try and express,” says Anton. “The lower body is held strong and solid and the movement of the fan is soft – it becomes like a bird that is flying all by itself. It has a life of its own – your body is just moving with it – and you can really get enthralled by the fan itself.


“Fan dances are also traditionally performed by communities – there are local clubs in Japan that perform them and Anton is the only percussionist and dancer in Australia that can perform both these movements,” says TaikOz’s Sophie Unsen.

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“This year everyone will be dancing and also playing drums – that’s not so traditional in Japan,” says Sophie. “You tend to have to choose one form or another. Some kids favour one particular activity – like drumming – and they are not so keen on the dancing. That’s fine – everyone likes different things but here at Moorambilla we encourage everyone to everything to the best of their ability.”


Anton demonstrates the correct stance                    for taiko drumming.

The children are playing a piece written by Anton, inspired by the Emu in the Sky theme of this year’s Moorambilla Gala Concert. “What we do doesn’t have to literally represent the emu – but what we do will connect with the spirit of the emu.”

Overlaid with the taiko dance is another interpretation by Jacob Williams, the school program coordinator for Queensland Ballet.

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“Jacob and I came up with a common language,” says Anton. “While we were performing our movement with the fan, Jacob was interpreting it from a contemporary dance perspective. That was awesome. So the children get the same language throughout – they are doing interconnected dances.”

Jacob agrees. “Working with TaikOz is a lot of fun. I’ve been able to manipulate the fan dancing and slow it down and elongate all the shapes into a contemporary dance segment.”

“I have to also say that Moorambilla has been a fantastic professional development opportunity for me. I used to arrive with a set plan and work through that in order – but I am learning that it’s much more effective if artists sit down and work together. I have learnt to have faith in the artistic process – you don’t know what you are going to be doing in the first or second day. It’s amazing how fast it comes together.

“These kids are constantly surprising me with all the ideas that they are coming up with – it’s not me choreographing on them, it’s them choreographing themselves.

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“Working with these kids is different from working with other kids,” says Anton. “They have a different type of determination. When we are here they are so hungry for it and I love that. I love coming here and spending time with people in this area – staying on the farm and spending time in Baradine. When we blast the main street with drums they know we are back!”