In the lead up to Father’s Day, Map of the Heart is interviewing dads to celebrate and discuss how they balance fatherhood and a burgeoning creative career.
WAANGENGA BLANCO, PERFORMER
Waani, where are you from?
I was born in Sydney, but I grew up in Mission Beach in far Northern Queensland. My heritage is from Mer Island in the Torres Straight Islands, and Pajinka Wik which is in Cape York. Both those blood lines come from my father, and my mother is English and Scottish.
What do you do?
I’m a senior artist with the Bangarra Dance Theatre.
When did you start dancing?
I have always been inspired by Bangarra. In 1983, I was born at the hostel where all the dancers would stay. My father was the hostel manager, and both his brother and cousin were students at the dance college. In a way, I guess I was born into it. Stephen Page, my director, was there the day I was born. I have always looked up to the dancers, and was drawn into the romanticism of their lifestyles – being able to travel the world to share our culture and stories through dance.
I danced for a little when I was younger, from about ages 8-11, before taking up other sports and sort of forgetting about dance. I had a calling to learn more about my culture after high school and I found that the most effective way for me to do that was to tap into dance. That was my foot in. Literally. I came down to Sydney and studied from 18-21, and Stephen knew I had been training, so he came and watched a show before offering me a contract.
So you’ve been dancing with Bangarra for over a decade. Can you briefly describe what Bangarra is all about?
Bangarra is about merging a contemporary form of dance with 65,000 years of culture. We try to blend our history and share stories in a more contemporary way. We tell mythological stories and deal with social issues, as well as the stories of today. Our culture is still alive but it’s expanding and changing in many ways, so we are constantly having to readjust and redefine what that is.
You’re currently in between performances at the Sydney Opera House.
Yes. So the show we’re touring at the moment is called Bennelong, and Bennelong was the first human conduit between English settlers and his people. He was one of the first to go to England to learn the language and adopt the Western way, which was very confusing for both him and his people. In the end, he was rejected by many in his society for allowing himself to be seduced by the Western way of life.
It must be incredible to tell his story at the Sydney Opera House, which is erected at Bennelong point.
Yeah. It’s a pretty sad story, but it’s quite profound performing at Bennelong where his story first began. I think it was the biggest season we’ve ever had at the Sydney Opera House.
And do you tour annually?
Yes, we do international, national and regional tours annually. We also visit remote areas of the country and perform for communities on makeshift stages under the stars.
You’re almost three weeks away from having your child with your partner Caroline. How has your experience of the journey been so far?
Caroline told me last year in Byron Bay as I was about to go to far Northern Queensland on a road trip. The day I was meant to leave, she said she had taken a pregnancy test. I had my eyes closed as she told me, and I remember just keeping my eyes closed with a big smile on my face. I knew that things were never going to be the same again, but in the best kind of way possible.
I’ve been wrapped up in the lifestyle of dance for a long time, and I’ve only ever had partners within the company. All of them are career first, which is totally understandable as that’s the sort of generation we are nowadays. Career before family. I was ready to have a family in the equation so when I met Caroline, I knew that she had such a beautiful nurturing quality about her, and she’s a real natural at it.
“IT’S SO FUCKING SCI-FI AS WELL. WHEN IT WAS FIRST KICKING, ONLY SHE WOULD REALLY FEEL IT, BUT NOW I CAN SEE THE ROLLS AND MOVEMENTS IN HER BELLY. IT WON’T REALLY HIT ME UNTIL IT’S OUT IN THE WORLD."
In terms of preparation, it’s much easier for me simply because I’ve been so busy at work and I’m not physically carrying the baby. In some ways, it’s easier to forget as I’m not carrying it all the time. I was consumed by it for the first two months, and then there’d be times where I’d forget, come home, and go “Oh! That’s right”. This thing just keeps growing and growing, but I’m not fearful of what’s the come. I’m all the feelings. I’m anxious, nervous, excited, and I don’t feel like my life is going to end, but rather it’s the beginning of something amazing and special.
Caroline and I both keep saying “It’s so fucking sci-fi” as well, . When it was first kicking, only she would really feel it, but now I can see the rolls and movements in her belly. It won’t really hit me until it’s out in the world. But I’m doing everything I can to help and support her. There was a month when the sickness was very intense, and Caroline was bedridden, so it’s all preparation for me as well, to make sure they’re well fed and their nutrition is up. After the first month, she had all her energy back and now there’s this gorgeous glow about her. There’s also this oxytocin that’s being released from her which makes me more in love at the moment.
All of those pheromones must be exploding!
I know! I’m like “Oh! This oxytocin has me so in love with you! You’re so gorgeous!” (Laughs).
Are you anticipating any ways in which having a child will influence your practice as a dancer?
Another dancer in the company just had a baby in March, and we’ve been together in the company for the same time. I’ve been watching him test the water, but it’s very much a family oriented company. They’re very supportive of us and what we do. Even in the earlier days, women would bring their children into rehearsals. There was always a baby in the corner somewhere, being looked after by the mob family. The company is my extended family.
Will you consider choreography?
I can still choreograph, but I will dance for as long as I can. I need other avenues and ways of sharing by voice without having to be on the road so often. We’re sometimes away for almost nine or ten months of the year, and that’s just not going to work with a child.
I’ve also been thinking about other interests of mine. Recently, I’ve been volunteering at the Royal Botanic Gardens because I was interested in becoming a ranger. I also want to learn more about botany and traditional medicine. Caroline is very much into natural medicine and I want to encompass as much knowledge as I can about our native plants, and how they can be used to heal ourselves.
In saying this, dance has always been my calling. But I don’t know how long my ego will require it.
Both of you have chosen to adopt a very natural approach to the birthing process.
Yes. As humans have been doing for thousands of years, we’re going to have a home birth. Neither of us are fans of hospitals or the way the system works. We want to have it in the most comfortable environment possible. We have a beautiful midwife who has been really helpful, and two doulas, one of them is a dear friend of ours.
We’re feeling very supported. Sometimes it’s scary telling people that we’re going to have a home birth, and at first I didn’t tell many because they often freak out.
Why do you think people freak out?
I think that Western society has imposed fears in doing things yourself and being independent of the hospital system. I think there’s a lot of unnecessary fear injected into women about birth. Perhaps it comes from their parents who have had terrible experiences, and then those fears carry through and arise in us.
Caroline and I have been trying to feel empowered by the learning process and finding out as much as we can. We’re just informing ourselves and not overly taking people’s word for it. For our birth, we’re going to have a big inflatable bath and just cosy it on up. It’ll be a spring baby too, so the weather will be nice.
NATHAN SMITH, DESIGNER
Where did your interest in design begin? And how did you come to launch your namesake label Nathan Smith?
My family was in clothing, but it wasn’t always apparent that design was what I would do. I’ve done quite a lot of things. I had previously studied graphic design and clothing production at Tafe, from there I opened a retail space in Avalon which catered for Australian and international labels. I started designing clothing for the store (Cumquat boutique). They were really popular, and began taking up more and more of my time so I decided to close the shop and focus on Nathan Smith (the label).
I didn’t approach fashion design in the traditional sense. I came at it from a graphic design background, trying to design clothes using Illustrator and Indesign whilst most people were still hand sketching. I had Nathan Smith for 6 or 7 years, and that was when my first son Boris was born.
And then you opened Smiths Organics.
Yes, I became disheartened with the throwaway nature of fashion, I guess kids sometimes help you get perspective. I found the way the industry worked was so monotonous & tiresome, but it was all I knew – So I decided to shut down the label and try something else. I found a market business for sale on Gumtree that sold fruit and vegetables. I knew nothing about it, so I asked the previous owner if I could work for free for a month and learn the processes. I eventually took over the business, the van, the tents and the three markets the previous owner had worked. From here, the idea for Smiths Organics Markets was born. It was basically an organic café/grocery store, where we made salads, smoothies, cold presses juices, sandwiches, coffee, nut mylks all with the help of a dedicated team of naturopaths, nutritionists & coffee brewers.
The business became very exhausting, and started to take a toll on my health – kind of a contradiction as we were trying to sell a healthy way of living. My wife Anna & I had many a long talk about where we were going and in the end decided to close the doors. I was lucky enough to be approached by Jac and Pat (of Jac + Jack) to design a jersey capsule for their range. I sort of stuck around and eventually undertook designing other parts of the collection.
So at the moment you’re freelance designing, and you now have two sons.
Yes – Boris (6) is my first son from a previous relationship. Aurelius (6months) is my wife Anna’s first & my second son. It’s amazing – but it’s interesting trying to juggle them both and work as well.
Your family structure doesn’t confine itself to the usual ‘nuclear family’. Could you discuss what you feel your role as a father means today, specifically in relation to societies expectations?
My family structure is interesting, but it seems to work. Boris’ mother (Katia) has a baby a couple of months younger than Aurelius, So Boris has two brothers that aren’t related. We all try to get along as best we can – it’s not without its pitfalls, but I think there are also some positives in having a diverse family. It definitely makes the family larger.
I think that society’s expectations are definitely changing for fathers. The situation I’m in is becoming more of a norm than it was when I was a kid, or when our parents were children. Previously, it was really out of the ordinary to have separated parents. Nowadays it’s not as unusual but it can still be confusing for people.
“UNCONDITIONAL LOVE DOESN’T REALLY APPLY WITHOUT YOU BEING THERE. YOU NEED TO BE ABLE TO TOUCH THEM, SPEAK TO THEM, BE PRESENT."
The role of a father in societies eyes is changing – I feel that we are slowly realising that a father is just as important in the raising of our children as the mother is. When I tell my dad I’m at home with the baby and Anna is at work, I get raised eyebrows. In his day the man just worked harder and the women stayed home with the kids. I feel sorry for him, because the joy and love I’ve experienced from watching my kids grow has been so amazing. Anna and I feel that it’s just as important for the father to nurture and care for the baby as it is the mother.
In all honesty it’s actually easier to go back to work. Try being a full time parent for a day and you’ll soon see who has the easier job – my hat goes off to anyone who raises kids, mums and dads.
And do your children embrace this family structure?
For Boris, he has really taken it in his stride. He also doesn’t really know any different from having two separate families, which is kind of great for him in that he gets so much diversity in people, interactions and experiences. I think he’s quite lucky in that respect.
And then there’s also the relationship between him and Aurelius, which is really beautiful. I don’t know how that will work out in the future, but for now it seems to be working quite well.
It’s very interesting because in our parents generation, especially in foreign cultural environments, everyone kept their traditional family structure together no matter what. Now it feels like it’s evolved so much, and that there’s not one true representation of a family anymore.
When I speak to people my age or younger who have grown up in families like ours, I am so intrigued because I never knew many kids who had this family structure when I was growing up. In a way, it’s such a new thing for it to be accepted or talked about. There’s no roadmap to follow so you have to be a little creative and make it up as you go. There has been a few wrong turns though.
For other people as well, I don’t even understand. I think maybe there is still a bit of a stigma there but we don’t really care what people think. I suppose we feel pretty confident that we aren’t doing anything wrong.
A lot of people say that unconditional love is the most important thing you can give your children. What do you think it should be?
I think that unconditional love is definitely a part of it, but I also think it’s about time spent. Unconditional love doesn’t really apply without you being there. You need to be able to touch them, speak to them, to be present. I think that’s really important. It’s easy to have children with you and for you to be on your phone, or put them in front of the TV/Ipad. It’s hard to switch everything off and converse with them really look them in the eyes and engage with them.
My biggest problem with Boris is trying to get him to sit and give you eye contact and have a conversation, because for kids in the world today, there are so many distractions and so much information flying around that they are really flighty.
Is there any advice which you would give to other fathers?
Yes. Spend the time. Get involved. If you can both take time from work together or consecutively – then do it. It’s so important. That’s the best advice I can give. And just enjoy it – you learn more from them than you could ever think.
Photography by Traianos Pakioufakis
Interview by Map of the Heart