Rosealee Pearson, 35
Hometown: Nhulunbuy, Northern Territory
Nominated by: Jess Loudon
Rosie Pearson has just driven across the desert—from Broome to Darwin—and is grinning at me, all kind eyes and wide smile.
We’ve been introduced to one another by Rosie’s former neighbour and Friday Bester, Jess Loudon, and it’s easy to imagine these two getting up to mischief in Nhulunbuy, the remote community in Arnhem Land where Rosie spent most of her childhood.
As a kid, Rosie would pass the days by dinking her brother on their BMX bike, hunting with their grandmother Nancy and listening to the sound of cicadas through the blistering heat. Back then, she’d dance a lot—everywhere really—but she had no idea you could do it professionally. For a long time, it was just her and her friends, Madonna and a tape player.
Today Rosie tours internationally as a performer—along with a few other hats. She’ll tell you that she began life as a dancer seriously late—at 23—after studying at Sydney’s NAISDA Dance College but she’s also accomplished a lot in a short time. As a Yolngu woman, she comes from a long line of incredibly talented performers and it’s her family that have been the best beacons of guidance as she decides where to focus her energy – and boogie – next.
Rosie, tell us a bit about who you are today….
I’m 35 and a Yolngu woman. I’m also a dancer, a performer and a tour manager. I’m on the road all the time, single and fine with that. I’m really happy at the moment!
How did you end up in this happy spot?
I think when you’re younger you’re really critical of yourself and you think about what you want to achieve in a certain amount of time. I got to 35 and I just kind of went, Shit I’ve got a lot and what I’ve done is really fucking cool and I don’t need to prove myself to anyone anymore. I’m just really happy and secure with what I do and what I have to offer.
I love hearing that!
My dad sent me to boarding school thinking that I was going to be the next Evonne Goolagong.
How did dance come into your life? How does it fit into your story?
I started professionally when I was 23. That’s old! But I guess I’ve been dancing forever. We used to plug in my tape player outside the principal’s office at school and we’d dance to Madonna and all that sort of stuff. And then I’d go over to my girlfriend’s house and we’d dance out the front of her house. I just did it but I didn’t know you could do it as a job.
My dad sent me to boarding school thinking that I was going to be the next Evonne Goolagong, you know, a superstar tennis player. That didn’t work out and then he was like, ‘Okay, you’re going to be a lawyer, you’re going to be a politician.’ and I was like, ‘Errr, it’s so not my thing!’
I walked past a poster for a dance audition and my whole physical body just stopped.
Later, I was going off to uni at Queensland’s QUT—I don’t even remember what I was studying – and I walked past a poster for a dance audition. My whole physical body just stopped. This conversation happened in my head and I was going, Oh my god, there are dance are auditions. Maybe I should try? And then, Nah, can’t do that. That’s too scary. What if I’m not good enough?
So I went off to my class. I did just one class and left. I thought, I need to go home [to Nhulunbuy]. Crazy! I went home and was there for three years working in a community education centre and then I found out you could do dance as a career.
Wow! You know what, you remind me so much of our mate – the one who actually introduced us—Jess Loudon. She had a similar experience when she decided to give up law to pursue acting. She also didn’t realise you could do it as a career.
What happened then? Who was supporting you through along the way?
My stepdad and my mum. There was an ad in a magazine that a Sydney dance college was going to be in Darwin and someone showed it to me. I thought, Maybe I should try that? My stepdad and my mum were like, ‘OK why don’t you just try and see how you go?’
My dad was totally against it. He said, ‘Whatever, be a dole bludger.’ It took until I started touring overseas that he went, ‘Oh, okay so it’s widened your options.’
Why do you think he thought that it wasn’t a proper career?
I just think he wasn’t exposed to it. He was an amazing musician himself but I grew up in a small town and there weren’t a lot of options. He just had no knowledge around it.
And luckily my stepdad—he’s from Adelaide—moved around a lot. He had more understanding. And my mum, her whole family are artists, so she knew. She toured with Yothu Yindi as a backing singer when they first started. So I think it’s about the people you’re around and how open their minds are.
I’m at the next level where I want to start creating my own works and that scares the shit out of me!
Do you ever feel like things do just fall into place? You just don’t know where you’re going yet?
Yup, totally. In some ways I feel like I have absolutely no control in where my career is going to go. I think it has to do with somebody else going, ‘Ok I want you.’ And then they organise everything and you’re along for the ride. But at the same time, I don’t want to say it’s just them doing all the work. It’s also my input as a dancer and doing a great job.
So what’s the best thing about your life today, as a dancer?
Besides lying on the couch today? I’m just happy that I’ve got a bit of a profile and my name is kind of getting out there. Because I’m so crap at networking! I feel really fake. I don’t know if I’m trying too hard.
They don’t teach this stuff at school, Rosie! Why do you feel like such a fake?
Because it’s an ulterior motive to getting to know a person; it’s about pushing some sort of other agenda. I feel uncomfortable about that but I’m getting better. Now I’m at the next level where I want to start creating my own works and that scares the shit out of me!
So all fears aside – for now – what’s your dream production?
There are a couple of things I want to do. The first came about from my grandmother’s clan. I remember when my grandmother was doing a talk at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, she kept looking at this other artist’s work, Lindy Lee, who’s a Buddhist. Lindy had made this massive scroll and what she’d done was burn holes in it.
So my grandmother was sitting there and when they asked her to talk she pointed at the scrolls and said, ‘Oh, that’s me.’ People were like,‘What?’ and she said, ‘That’s me, I am fire.’
I am the fire that is on the paper bark burning it, my children are the sparks that come off and the ash that falls are my grandchildren.
To be more specific, if you’re looking at paper, you’re looking at bark and all the different layers of the tree itself. So my grandma says, ‘I am the fire that is on the paper bark burning it, my children are the sparks that come off and the ash that falls are my grandchildren.’
It’s all interconnected. I went, Oh my God, that would be a really fucking amazing dance piece to do. When I went to sleep I had this massive dream about how it was all going to go and I thought, Ok, so I’m supposed to do that then! [laughs]
You absolutely have to, Rosie!
I’ve been researching and reading books like Fahrenheit, trying to connect what scientists know about the initial spark of a fire and how it’s created and how that links into Yolngu knowledge. The fire is connected to the crocodile and the crocodile is connected to the land. It’s just crazy.
My dad taught me never to walk off a job, even if you’re having the shittiest time ever. It’s about how you start and how you finish.
You were saying before that your whole family has been so supportive along the way. What do you think have been the best things they’ve taught you?
My dad taught me never to walk off a job. Even if you’re having the shittiest time ever, he said to stay focused and stay professional because people will always remember you. It’s how you start and how you finish.
Mum always said to be kind and give forgiveness. Just because a person treats you badly it’s not because of who you are as a person, they’re just having a shit day. It’s got nothing to do with you, Rosie. Don’t stay stuck in that moment! I hold that so dearly.
And my stepdad said that there are people who are going to teach you good things and there other people who will treat you like shit, but that’s okay because they’re going to teach you what you don’t want in life.
Such a good one.
I know! I’m so lucky I’ve got these amazing people in my life. And they’re all so positive.
I wish I had had the guts to say to my dad that I wanted to go to an art school earlier and told him to shove going to boarding school.
So if there was a decision in your life that you could take back, what would it be?
That I didn’t start earlier. [Laughs] I wish I had had the guts to say to my dad that I wanted to go to an art school earlier and told him to shove going to boarding school, somewhere I didn’t really want to go. I guess you can’t change that, though. What I’d do again is not date while I studied.
My focus went towards supporting the other person’s needs. I forgot what it was that I wanted.
Why is that?
Because my focus went towards—and it’s a total Virgo thing—supporting the other person’s needs and wants. I took a step back and I forgot what it was that I wanted and I put all my energy into my partner.
How long did it take you to realise that that was what had happened?
Probably two years after we graduated when he got into the dance company that I originally wanted to get into when I got to Sydney. And I went, How did that fucking happen? Wasn’t I the one that was supposed to end up in the company?
You’ve obviously accomplished so much since you’ve graduated, even if it’s not initially how you imagined it. What’s been your biggest accomplishment so far?
Performing Saltbush in New York was huge! Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would perform in New York. A lot of the times when we were training, heaps of people had travelled a lot as well, but you kind of think that doesn’t happen to you.
Has anyone from the dance world actively guided you along the way? Who do you look up to?
I feel like in some ways I haven’t been guided, I’ve just fumbled my way through. The people that I have looked up to are my older brother, who dances with Bangarra Dance Theatre, my sister, Janet, and all the old Bangarra dancers like Albert David etc.
I think a lot of us just fumble our way through.
What makes them stand out to you?
Just because they came from similar circumstances. They were from small towns and said, ‘Oh well let’s try this.’ They’ve had to go through the same stuff as I have. I think that’s anyone really; some people have a lot more support in terms of mentorships but I think a lot of us just fumble our way through.
Do you feel a sense of success then?
Yeah, I do. I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot. The fact that I did a show New York, I’ve got a good working record and I’ve got connections with people I want to work with. So the next part will be the scary part of creating my own works.
I am going to be holding out to see a poster for your show, Rosie.
Let’s give it a timeline of five years!
What I also wanted to ask—because I am someone who just cannot dance—is what is dancing for you? How does it feel?
You know how people talk about yoga and they talk about becoming aware of their whole body? I think that’s what it is for me. I got a massage today from a friend and he adjusted my neck. With this one click I could feel my whole body vibrate. A lot of people are disconnected from that. I can sometimes feel my blood pulsing through—you get to know your body so well. Dancing makes me happy and it gives happiness to people – and it makes you look hot because you’re training! [laughs] You must boogie when you go out?
I have this terrible shyness on the dance floor, Rosie, and no coordination.
I taught a guy who had two left feet and he ended up in the Bangarra Dance Theatre. So it’s possible! People learn how to dance. It’s easy. And my stepdad, he would say he’s the most unco dancer, but I love the way he dances. I love the way anybody dances. It doesn’t have to be in rhythm or time, it’s just the enjoyment. You know? Change that space around you! [Laughs]
Being older, it’s good to be a guide for the possibilities of what you can do in life.
Coming back to you and your family, what do you see as your role in your family?
That they see me off doing my thing and loving it. That I’m giving it a go. My younger sister is now training to be a body builder. She’s only sixteen and going up against nineteen-year-olds and came fourth the other day in a competition. My other brother, Arian, is an acoustic guitarist in a band but then he works with the family business in tourism and he’s still creating music. My other brother, Keelan, I worry for him. He’s such a Korean pop fan. He had an audition the other day and he got crushed and I was like, ‘That’s ok, it’s only one audition just go again.’ Hopefully he’ll get through. I think being older, it’s good to be a guide for the possibilities of what you can do in life. Hopefully that’s what I show.
I reckon you’re showing that in spades, Rosie.
I do wonder whether people are given the opportunity when they’re growing up to be self-critical.
What do you wish we spoke more about?
My brother posted this thing recently on Facebook about intention and being self-critical as a human being, and I do wonder whether people are given the opportunity when they’re growing up to be self critical in terms of their reactions and interactions with other people. I think that’s what I really learnt from the arts. Not everyone is the same.
How is it that this tiny group of people in the tip of Australia are so world-renowned?
I guess also being Yolngu, it would be kind of cool if we spoke more about Yolngu people. We’re only less then 1% of the population in Australia let alone the world. They’re so talented. Where does that come from? And how is it that this tiny group of people in the tip of Australia are so world-renowned? I think that’s a conversation we can have. Is it something in the water? Because Yolngu people only came into contact with Western society in the 1960s, so what is that?
Dance isn’t different from what you do at work, or at home. It is within what you do in your everyday life.
Can you have a stab at it? What does it feel like to you?
I think because they don’t distinguish; they don’t put everything into boxes. Instead, everything exists as a big mesh. You know, dance isn’t different from what you do at work, or at home. It is within what you do in your everyday life. And I think people, a lot of the time, put it to the side.
One last question…What advice would you give your younger self?
Don’t be scared to speak up! And go for what you really want in life because you know what you want already, you just don’t know how to speak to it.
You’re a gem, Rosie. Thank you and bring on the Rosie Pearson productions.
Want to know more about Rosie? Visit www.rosealeepearson.com