Ella – The Australian Ballet’s first Indigenous dancer

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Reviewed by Daniel Wilson

In his breathtaking documentary Ella, director Douglas Watkin reflects on contemporary Australian cultural identity by revealing the remarkable true story of Ella Havelka. She is a young woman from Dubbo with a big dream.

Not since Buena Vista Social Club (1999) has a documentary managed to combine stage, music and characters so seamlessly. Shot in stunning cinematic wide-screen format, the vivid backdrops of Dubbo, Melbourne, Sydney and Beijing play visual accompaniment to the unfolding story of an elite ballet dancer.

Not since Hoop Dreams (1994) has a coming-of-age documentary cut so deep as to reveal the soul of a nation. Torn between an ancient indigenous culture and the fast-paced excitement of modernity, Havelka feels most comfortable with a foot in both worlds.

The documentary takes us on an intimate journey that begins when she first watched a VHS of Swan Lake as a kid and decided then and there that ballet was what she wanted to do.

She was an only child raised by a single mother, Janna Havelka, in modest circumstances. “Because we are aboriginal, people thought ‘oh why doesn’t she do basketball’ or ‘why doesn’t she go running’ – I said, that’s what you want for Ella, that’s not what Ella wants” Janna Havelka recounts.

Here we glimpse the political undertones that run throughout the film; the dichotomy of rural and urban, of old and new, and of indigenous and non-indigenous. We are reminded that it is not for white Australians to say what is best for our Indigenous brothers and sisters. It is not for others to determine what their story should be.

Ella Havelka’s determination, and the loving support of her mother and those around her, saw her gain entry to the Australian Ballet School in Melbourne. With an indigenous background and from a rural town, navigating the skyscrapers of Southbank she realises her story was not ordinary; “I know I am not the conventional ballerina, I’m different”.

Her story is not a linear one. We follow her transition from classical dance to contemporary movements and back again, while also witnessing her increasing engagement with her Indigenous heritage. Her struggle is emblematic of the cultural awakening of Australia, timid and insecure about our place in the world, Ella shows that, drawing on a rich and diverse cultural heritage, we can dance with the best of them.

The highs and lows that punctuate her inspiring journey to become The Australian Ballet’s first Indigenous dancer will keep anyone who ever had a dream spellbound until the last pirouette.

Ella premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival, and will be featured in the festival’s Travelling Showcase, hitting the road in September and October 2016 with a series of weekend programs in towns across Victoria. Ella is due for general cinematic release this year.

To celebrate the premier of Ella, the inspirational Ella Havelka has set up a fundraiser to support Oxfam Australia’s Close the Gap Campaign. She is crafting unique hand woven items and running weaving workshops in exchange for donations.

For more information visit her site: https://ellahavelka.com/

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