Introducing ‘Ella’: The Story Of The Australian Ballet’s First Indigenous Dancer

Her name ought to be much more familiar.

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This is a review from the 2016 Melbourne International Film Festival. Check out more of our coverage here.

If Ella Havelka’s name is unfamiliar, then you might know her as the first indigenous dancer to be selected for the Australian Ballet. If not, you’ll definitely know more about her after this local documentary by Douglas Watkins. Ella follows the dancer’s career to date — one which started, as many presumably did, with a viewing of a VHS copy of Swan Lake.

A descendant of the Wiradjuri people, Havelka dedicated her youth to the pursuit of her dream — an unfamiliar one for many Aboriginal men and women. Ella follows the dancer as she leaves the National Ballet School for the famed Bangarra Dance Theatre and eventually to the Australian Ballet where her dream of performing Swan Lake is at the tip of her en pointe toes.

Most importantly for a documentary, Havelka’s is a story that needs to be told so one can forgive director Watkins choosing to keep things simple. While it would have been nice to see a more visually impressionistic take on her story, there is nevertheless some excellent editing and wonderful cinematography on display.

The film’s most interesting passages are actually those of Ella at Bangarra, a venue that allows her to more deeply connect with her ancestry which leads to the film’s most rewarding passages. The dances that she’s involved with at this point of her career are by far the more interesting from purely an aesthetic point of view, but also from an intellectual one. These beautifully filmed performances and the discussion around them are especially interesting viewing for local audiences; it makes me wish a trip to a Bangarra performance was on the compulsory curriculum for every Australian high school.

These sequences work as a fine compliment to Spear, the non-traditional dance feature from earlier this year that was directed by Bangarra’s Artistic Director Stephen Page (who appears as a talking head in Ella) and starring Cleverman’s Hunter Page-Lochard).

It’s only to be expected then that later sequences suffer somewhat in comparison. As wonderful as it is to see Havelka achieve her dream of performing Swan Lake on stage, it’s hard not to note that in the background company role her immense talent feels somewhat wasted. A sequence at the Australian Ballet where she performs her own choreography is far beyond her work in Swan Lake, and one of the interviewees even questions whether she has a future at the company or should utilise these talents elsewhere.

Maybe there is a sequel to be made in where she goes next, but at least for now Ella is a nicely assembled look at somebody whose name ought to be much more familiar.

Ella will be at the MIFF Travelling Film Festival later this year. You can read more about Ella Havelka here.

Glenn Dunks is a freelance writer from Melbourne. He also works as an editor and a film festival programmer while tweeting too much at @glenndunks.