SURROUNDED by skyscrapers in the heart of the Sydney business district, an Aborigine in tribal paint raises his spear and slowly stalks his prey. Lunchtime shoppers look on transfixed as the spear finds its mark, a fellow Aborigine. Suddenly the onlookers burst into applause - the Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre has won over another audience.
Openair performances like this have helped create the AIDT's reputation as one of the foremost dance troupes in Australia, as it mixes modern styles with a tradition of tribal dance that stretches back through the 40,000 years of Aboriginal history.
Yet, for a company with such a long cultural tradition, opportunity has come only very recently. Until the mid-1970s, Aboriginal dancers in Australia had little if any chance to pursue a professional career - and they probably still would not without the help of a black American woman.
It was 1972 when Carole Johnson, a graduate of New York's Juilliard School of Music, visited Australia with the Eleo Pomare Dance Company to perform at the Adelaide Arts Festival.
While in Australia, she was approached by Aboriginal dancers asking if she could do something - anything - to help them with careers which were going nowhere fast. Many charge that Aborigines have generally been treated as outcasts in their own country since the coming of the white man 200 years ago, and they were denied citizenship until 1967.
``They kept telling me, `We have so many talented Aborigines in the arts, but nothing ever happens to them,''' Ms. Johnson remembers. ``I agreed to conduct some dance workshops in Redfern, an inner-city suburb in Sydney which is often called the Harlem of Australia because of its Aboriginal population.
``The workshops created immediate impact, because for the first time Aborigines could see dance as a vehicle for social comment, as a way of changing racial images.''
After shuttling back and forth between Australia and the United States for three years, Johnson decided in 1975 to settle in Australia, where she founded the Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre in Sydney that year. It was Australia's first black dance company, and began as a school for young Aboriginal dancers who found it almost impossible to win entry to other institutions because of racism, poverty, or lack of self-confidence.
``In 1975, Australian television did not even let Aborigines play themselves - that's the climate we were faced with,'' says Johnson. ``I found that Aborigines, especially in the cities, were more out of touch with their traditional dance than were American blacks with African dance styles, so the first thing was to take them back to their roots.''
The school was set up in a rundown church hall in Glebe, a Sydney suburb. There were no showers, the dressing room was a renovated closet, and the rehearsal room was so small that the dancers practiced in a park across the road when the weather permitted. But the students did not seem to mind.
```At last we have hope,' was what all the young dancers said in those early years,'' says Johnson. The school now trains 35 black students at any one time from around the country - and from the Torres Strait islanders just north of the mainland - in a five-year diploma course that covers not only traditional tribal dance but also tap, jazz, Afro, and breakdance.
The students are sent regularly to outback tribal communities to learn Aboriginal dance firsthand. Tribal dancers are also brought to Sydney to teach and to appear in AIDT performances.
Since its inception, the troupe has developed quite a following. Its annual end-of-year performances, featuring students and postgraduate dancers, is always a sellout with Sydney audiences, and performances around the country by the professional company receive almost uniformly enthusiastic reviews. The shows mix political themes, such as the recent spate of deaths of Aborigines in police custody, with uninhibited fun. ``We want to make a statement, but not to be didactic,'' explains Johnson.
The troupe is also gaining an international reputation. It has toured successfully in West Germany, Finland, Canada, and the US. David Bowie and Stevie Wonder have both used the dancers in music videos and also help support the school financially. It's help that is badly needed: ``It's a real struggle to make ends meet,'' Johnson admits. ``We have to piece together corporate and individual donations, and government grants. It's a hand-to-mouth existence.''
The troupe's current battle is to persuade government agencies to provide new premises so that the school can move out of that cramped church hall. ``We've helped give black performers not only a professional opportunity, but a better perception of themselves,'' asserts Johnson, and her prot'eg'es agree.
``I simply would not be dancing if it wasn't for the AIDT,'' says Monica Stevens, a school graduate. ``It's still so hard to break into white companies in Australia, but with the AIDT you have the support of your own people to achieve your potential.''
Jasmine Gulash, another product of the school, agrees. ``It creates pride in being an Aborigine. Indigenous people around the country are holding their heads higher, just because our troupe exists.''
According to the company's founder, the troupe is also helping to change white perceptions of Aborigines. ``Black Australians get a generally bad press, and their culture has never been taught much in schools,'' says Johnson.
``But just seeing these young Aborigines performing at a high standard, to world acclaim, makes white Australians reexamine their attitudes.''
Johnson adds that another result of the troupe is a new form of dance. ``Aboriginal traditional dance and modern technique have never been mixed before, and what we're seeing now is a unique form of dance evolving. It's an exciting time for all of us.''