Daniel Riley: Taking the leap and leading the conversation

10 July 2023

Nationally acclaimed dancer and choreographer, Daniel Riley took a leap of faith moving to South Australia to become the first, First Nations Artistic Director of Australian Dance Theatre last year.

But from the creative comfort of his new home town, he’s forging a life, a story, and a purpose – leading the way with hard conversations.

“This is where I’m meant to be…and that feels good,” Daniel says, as he reflects on the twist of fate that led him to move his life and family to Adelaide to take on the role of a lifetime.

A proud Wiradjuri man, Daniel was born in Western Sydney, and spent his youth flitting between the northern beaches and Gold Coast before eventually settling on Ngambri Country in Canberra where he started high school, and discovered dance.

“As a young boy I wanted to play soccer for Manchester United and for the Australian cricket team. I never really landed on anything at school like science, maths, or English,” he says.

“I would count down the hours till I could go to soccer or cricket practice. And then, when I found dance, I was just waiting till I could go to dance class – I felt like when I walked into those rooms, I was with my peers.”

Then, at just 12 years old, Daniel met someone who changed the course of his life: Elizabeth Cameron Dalman, the founder of Australian Dance Theatre.

“I came across this incredible woman. Her name was Elizabeth. She said, ‘oh, you like dancing?’ and I said, ‘yeah, I do’.”

Elizabeth introduced Daniel to a youth dance company starting up in Canberra called Quantum Leap (now known as QL2 Dance) and he’s never looked back.

“It blew my mind. Going into those rooms of artistic vibrancy and lateral thinking, problem solving and looking at ideas and how to explore those (ideas) using our bodies. As a teenage boy, I was like, whoa, this is incredible!”

It wasn’t until years later that Daniel realised Elizabeth was the founder of Australia’s first contemporary dance company, Australian Dance Theater, based in Adelaide.

“I’m now leading the exact company that she founded in 1965,” he says.

“I’m leading the oldest contemporary dance company in the country as the first, First Nations Artistic Director. That’s something that I couldn’t have predicted 20 years ago.”

When the past and the future collide

Daniel says Australian Dance Theater has always been a company that has existed to provoke and protest, which is why he feels so at home at the helm.

“Elizabeth was using work as a protest. She was doing four day weeks (and) spending one day a week protesting the Vietnam War,” he says.

“She was making work as a fierce, staunch feminist. She was working barefoot, she was tearing apart the ballet cannon – they called her dance “ugly” in reviews.”

Inspired by her friends and contemporaries, Peter Sculthorpe and John Olson, Daniel said Elizabeth was well ahead of her time in terms of creating art that sat outside of the general public’s comfort zone.

“You know, dance at that period was ballet. There was no such thing as Australian contemporary dance. She was working against the stream in every way,” he says.

“There is something in the spirit of that – and I honestly really believe this – I don’t think ADT would’ve had the success that it’s had if it was in any other state in Australia.

“ADT’s always been seen as the dance company that’s pushing forward, it’s always been seen as kind of the tip of the spear.”

Taking the leap

To be the one left holding that spear – Elizabeth’s legacy – was the catalyst for Daniel’s decision to move to Adelaide.

“I moved to South Australia to lead Australian Dance Theater, to be in a landscape where ADT has existed since 1965. At the forefront of Australian contemporary dance,” he says.

“It has always pushed conversations, the very idea of Australian dance, and questioning what that is – so I’m here to keep pushing that conversation forward.

“We are a local company, but the work we make has international impact. So I was incredibly excited about moving to South Australia and getting to know this state (has) fed the previous Artistic Directors to create incredible dance theatre, powerful dance theatre.”

Since moving to Adelaide just over a year ago, Daniel has been blown away by the warmth and generosity of the artistic community, and has found enormous inspiration from the land and its First Nations people.

“The landscape for me, being a First Nations artist, is stunning. From the oceans to the hills to the desert. The stories around Adelaide and specifically all the surrounding First Nations tribes and mobs, what they contribute to the larger conversation is incredibly inspiring,” he says.

“The Elders here have been incredibly supportive of me, always on the end of a phone call.”

He also feels that South Australia has given him the time, space and clarity of mind to create great work.

“For me, the excitement about coming to Adelaide was that I felt like I could do really good solid work here, without having somebody look over my shoulder 24/7 – then take that work to the nation and to the regions and internationally.

“That’s the proof of the power of South Australia and the power of Adelaide, as an incredibly supportive, vibrant, forward thinking, risk-taking state artistically.”

Moving from Melbourne with his 18 month old daughter and five year old son, Daniel admits there is always an initial trepidation about settling into a new place, but he says it’s been remarkably “easy”.

“We landed into a community that has just been so lovely,” he says. “I’m really very grateful to be living here at this point in time.”

“Whether it’s ancestors or whether it’s the land, this is where I’m meant to be and this is the work I’m meant to be doing now.”

Leading with hard conversations

In his first year at Australian Dance Theater, Daniel has produced two challenging new works, Savage and Tracker, to national acclaim.

“Being the first, First Nation Artistic Director I get to lead with hard conversations, through the work that I make. And that’s exciting because I have the platform now,” Daniel says.

Daniel’s first major work at Australian Dance Theater, Savage, questioned power and the lies told about the foundations of Australia. He’s since presented Tracker, which premiered at the Sydney Festival in January 2023 and is now touring nationally.

“My new major work, Tracker, is about my great-great uncle who was a black tracker with the New South Wales Police Force,” Daniel says.

“He’s a black man who wore a colonially implemented uniform. He served the police force for 40 years. He was the first tracker to be promoted to the rank of Sergeant, and he’s the only black tracker in Australian colonial policing history to receive the King’s medal for distinguished service.

“Yet, at the end of 40 years, he got no pension, because under the law at the time, Aboriginals weren’t to receive a pension.”

Daniel says he’s really proud to be able to present this work through ADT because it’s the very first piece of fully self-determined First Nation storytelling that ADT has ever produced and presented – including an all First Nations cast and creative team.

“Already it’s something that I’m incredibly proud of, that I can bring fully self-determined black work to ADT because we are called Australian Dance Theater.”

Daniel’s new state of mind

Aside from living his dream as the Artistic Director of ADT, Daniel says the shift in pace he’s experienced since calling South Australia home has allowed him to really reflect and take time to better understand his artistic goals and the stories he wants to tell.

“The pace of South Australia for me feels incredible, I don’t feel like I’m sprinting all the time,” he says.

“There’s this idea of being held between the landscape and the sky, this incredible kind of energy of the land and the ocean.

“And then the vastness of the sky, it feels like we are all being held in a way that is incredibly supportive.

“Artistically, that’s exciting and powerful.”

“It’s about looking through different eyes and hearing through different ears, it feels new and incredibly exciting because every conversation I have is about two or three steps forward to where we are now.”

While Daniel has no idea how long he will be in his position and in the state, he’s committed to ensuring his tenure has an impact on ADT and Adelaide.

“I just feel there is a stronger reason why I’m here in South Australia. Ultimately, what I want to do at ADT is tell stories. I want to tell powerful, impactful, Australian stories, stories that are inspired by this land, by the artists and the people who tread lightly upon this land.

“Yeah, South Australia’s definitely home.”