Na Djinang Circus

A Q and A with Harley Mann, Founder and Director of Na Djinang Circus by Flora Georgiou.

Flora Georgiou: Can you tell me your background, your early influencers and what inspired you decide to get into acrobatics and circus?

Harley Mann: I have always been a part of the circus community. As a child I was involved in a youth circus called Aerialize, so I was constantly training and performing. I didn’t really make the decision to fully commit to a life of acrobatics till after I had graduated high school.

Flora Georgiou: What has shaped your ideals and experiences?

Harley Mann: For me art comes from people, what we feel and what we have lived. All the shows I make are deeply related to what I’m living or thinking about at the time. When I was dreaming up Arterial I was on a journey of celebration and connection during a time of isolation. The show carries those ideal of the importance of connecting to culture even across difference countries and people.

Flora Georgiou: Was it for you to break into the circus industry as a Wakka Wakka man?

Harley Mann: Yes and no. From a superficial level I haven’t really struggled to find work as an acrobat as there aren’t many other artists with the same experiences and skills that I have. So breaking isn’t really the barrier.

The main barrier I notice is staying imbedded in the community in a way that doesn’t feel tokenistic and isn’t emotionally draining. It can be really demoralising to feel like your work isn’t important or valid based on you and your hard work but rather as a tick a box choice in someone else scheme. This feeling can also be weaponised and used to reinforce imposter syndrome which again removes the voices of First nations people in our sector.

I think the actions of colonisation in this country are so deeply embedded into our way of life that most people are unconscious to the barriers they create for First Peoples.

It’s exciting to see new opportunities and support emerging within our sector for change but it’s important to remember that this is a slow process that requires dedication and like all things it’s much easier to criticise and destroy than it is to build.

Flora Georgiou: What inspired you to form your own circus compony back in 2017?

Harley Mann: I don’t think I originally wanted to start a company, I just wanted to tell different stories. Before we really defined Na Djinang as a company, and the personality of the company began to emerge, it was just a shell company that acted as a vehicle to create new circus shows that reflected us.

Now I can see that the company is likely more significant than any one show and the choice to develop a company was a wise move to create space for radical social questioning and artistic expression. I’m very privileged and thankful to be in a position where I can continue to work with community and artist to create space for people to dream bigger than we ever could.

Flora Georgiou: What does Na Djinang mean?

Harley Mann: Hands and Feet.

Flora Georgiou: How do you separate yourself from other circus companies?

Harley Mann: We aren’t interested in separating ourselves from other companies. Rather we work to tell our own stories in our own way that reflect our cultural, values and identity. By being our authentic self, we are inherently different from any other company. I’m aware there is only a subtle difference, but I think it’s an important one.

This internal focus is the reason why our work and artists can be so vulnerable and honest. We work to build trust in our physicality, creative process and cultural protocol so our story telling can be deeply complex and tackle very personal experiences.

Flora Georgiou: Tell us about the Making Tracks program and what it means to you and your community?

Harley Mann: Making Tracks is a development program to support and encourage First Nations peoples to become circus artists. Being and becoming a circus artist goes far beyond the physical training and the on-stage art, it includes researching, understanding contractual agreements and expectation, seeking advice, critically reflecting on your strengths and areas that need to be improved, trialling new ideas and asking others for guidance.

As we collaborate and create, we need to listen and hear the wisdom from experts, most importantly we spend time building relationships with Elders to ensure we respectfully create contemporary works.  

Listening to our Elders is our responsibility and the most important check point for our thinking and creativity.  

We want to facilitate and make space for our mob to take time to grow their own artistic practise and footprint. This project is very close to my heart as it reminds me of my journey coming up through Circus Oz Blakflip program. I think about how my career would have been different without it. I think our sector needs this and we have the collective capacity to make it work.

Flora Georgiou: What does the show Arterial mean for you?

Harley Mann: I think my relationship with the work is different for most other people. When I watch it I see myself in a variety of different iterations.  Imagine there is a hum or a resonance that exists and holds people, culture, country, ancestry and much more, the work is all about how we as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people connect with this thing.

So when I see the work I see this resonance and all the ways and moments in my life when I am connecting with this rhythm and when I loose touch of that rhythm and what that does to me.

I hope this becomes clear to other people viewing the work and they can see themselves in the story.

Flora Georgiou: Tell us about how sound connects your work, and your collaboration with your sound composer Danni in your new project Arterial?

Harley Mann: The sound plays a very specific and important role in Arterial. It layers a huge amount of emotion onto the physicality.

Because Arterial is so much inspired by this undercurrent rhythm idea, when we entered the space of layering musical rhythms and beats onto the work it became immediately clear that this was going to be hard. Its kind of like we are searching for sounds that aren’t audible to the human ears but are felt which isn’t ideal for building a sound design.

Danni has spent a lot of time searching for sounds that reflect this resonance while also maintaining the joyful celebratory intention of the work.

Arterial by Na Djinang Circus plays at Darebin Arts Speakeasy, Northcote Town Hall Arts Centre, 189 Hight St, Northcote from April 20 – 30, 2021

Photographer: Darren Gill

Click here to read Flora's review of Arterial