Timor-Leste & Australia — 2015

The following report was presented by Erika Goldsmith at the World Dance Alliance Conference in Singapore in October 2015.

In Tetun language (the lingua franca of East Timor) there’s an old saying, but this saying is still popular until nowadays-the word says “feto hakat kloot, mane hakat luan”. It literally means that men have more space to move freely but women don’t.

– Milena Da Silva, Project Participant


This is a rundown on the Feto Hamutuk project that I recently completed alongside Kinetic Collective team member Madeleine Boyd. Here I share with you some of our learning’s and recommendations discovered through this exhausting, stressful and incredibly rewarding process, in the hope that you might find these informative, interesting, challenging, affirming or perhaps useful in your own practice! I will first give you a brief project outline and important contextual information before I go on to talk about the project implementation and the function of art and more specifically dance in this particular project. It is important to note that, although this was not exclusively a dance project, I am a dancer and community dance practitioner, therefor my approach had certain characteristics derived from my practice.

The Project

Women’s empowerment through arts and media, as well as the experience of sisterhood, was the core strategy that underpinned this project, which brought 11 female dancers, actors, musicians and filmmakers from Timor-Leste to Australia for one month of intensive creative and professional development in June and July 2015. The project was the result of an ongoing relationship between Brisbane-based organisation Kinetic Collective and dedicated individuals and organisations in Timor-Leste. Funded through the Australia Awards Fellowship Program administered by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the project was implemented by Kinetic Collective’s Erika Goldsmith and Madeleine Boyd, with mentorship from Ann Mclean of Ausdance QLD and in collaboration with Griffith International, Griffith Film School, as well as selected skilled facilitators from the local community in Brisbane. The program itself was very intensive with one studio session and two workshops every day from Monday to Friday, followed by outings to artistic and cultural performances several evenings per week. There was also a trip to Melbourne and Darwin, meetings with the local Australian and Timorese community and sightseeing trips. The daily studio sessions were for the development of a collaborative performance, exploring gender-based violence and life for women in Timor-Leste, to be showcased at the end of the month at the Brisbane Multicultural Arts Centre.



The cultural context was of course central to this project and was an essential consideration. Timor-Leste, also known as East Timor, is a small island nation 50 minutes flight north of Darwin, making it the closest country to Australia. One of the youngest Asian nations, it was colonised by the Portuguese in the 1500s and then gained independence in 1975. However, just eight days later Timor-Leste was invaded by Indonesia. In 2002, with the support of the UN, Timor-Leste’s first president Xanana Gusmao was elected and the country’s independence was restored. Since then, many grassroots organisations have sprung up to rebuild the nation. Timor-Leste’s turbulent history influenced its unique culture, but also brought poverty, violence and trauma, particularly for those who lived through the Indonesian occupation. The Australian government was accused of playing a role in the events leading up to Indonesia’s invasion of Timor-Leste and of turning a ‘blind eye’ to the initial stages of the invasion.


Timor-Leste is linguistically diverse, with the official national languages being Tetun and Portuguese. Each of the 12 districts also has its own local language, however Tetun is the most widely spoken across the country. Portuguese is the language used in the education system, despite controversy. Also, due to the Indonesian occupation and the prevalence of Indonesian TV, most people speak Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian language).


Art Textiles, sculptures, painting, dancers, theatre, music and more recently film, and are all part of Timor-Leste’s rich culture. Out of Timor-Leste’s struggle for independence came a revolution movement of artistic expression with artists identifying with the likes of Che Guevara and Bob Marley. Institutions like Arte Moris, Timor-Leste’s free art school, and Bibi Bulak (Crazy Goat) theatre, were founded to foster this creativity and share stories. In 2014 Timor-Leste held its first ever public arts festival, Arte Publiku, in the capital Dili. The arts scene is gaining momentum in Timor-Leste, however more opportunities for women are needed.


The Women

The 11 female participants came from villages across Timor-Leste, however at the time of the program nine of them were living in Dili, and two were living in a remote village called Los Palos. They are between 23 and 35 years old; five of them are married and are mothers, and two were five months pregnant during their stay in Australia. They represented three organisations, including Ba Futuru, a peace and conflict resolution NGO, Many Hands International, a cultural community development NGO, and TERTIL, Timor-Leste’s Theatre Company. Most of the women have a background in theatre, however more specifically the group was made up of two dancers, one singer and ukulele player, one filmmaker, one arts project manager, one drama program facilitator, one theatre director, and four actresses. Theatre in Timor-Leste has been influenced by Theatre of the Oppressed, Social Action Theatre and Playback Theatre, however comedy is very popular. Dance in Timor-Leste is often ritualistic and traditional. It’s also very common to do Portuguese partner dancing at any social event. Hip-hop and breakdancing has become the dance of young people and one of the participants had even been trained in Zumba. The participants had a range of English language ability, from very low to fluent. Six of the participants had never been on a plane and only one participant had been to Australia before.


The Journey

There are some basic principles of the project that are worth noting.

The project model responded to the participant’s personal characteristics and aspirations. The participants all work in the area of empowering women, resolving conflict and the arts. Some of them knew each other and some had worked together previously. The program, process and product were driven by the participants and the Kinetic Collective facilitators.

From 2012 to 2014, my colleague Madeleine Boyd and I had visited Timor-Leste annually to implement community arts projects. This meant we already had a close connection with Timor-Leste and personally with some of the participants.

From the very beginning this project required me to question and reflect on my practice more than anything I have ever done. Firstly, the conditions and parameters of the funding itself meant that my original project proposal for Kinetic Collective to work in-community in Timor-Leste had to be remodelled to involve bringing the participants to Australia instead. This raised a whole host of different ethical considerations and it took me a long time to be comfortable with the new model. I based my acceptance of this personal practice shift on five key factors:

  • Participants were selected based on them identifying that they wanted to come to Australia;

  • The project was an opportunity for the participants from disadvantaged socio-economic circumstances to come and utilise our resources including facilities and skilled facilitators;

  • The participants had the opportunity to have an immersive cultural experience, rather than us as the facilitators;

  • Although separated from important familial and community support networks, the participants would also be separated from the pressures and influence that these same networks had on their lives, potentially allowing for a more focused and objective analysis of issues, which may not be possible at home due to community pressure;

  • The facilitators would be working within a cultural context they are arguably more comfortable in, which could benefit their practice.


After receiving the funds, preparation predominantly involved notifying and preparing the participants, re-writing the program in detail and selecting local facilitators, organising logistics, designing the evaluation, preparing our facilitation and debriefing processes, liaising with stakeholders and considering overall potential cultural issues. There was a considerable amount of preparation that was unnecessary and other areas that in retrospect required more planning. In particular the over organisation of the participants time, which left little room in the program for flexibility and direction from the participants – however, this was something I attempted to rectify throughout the project. Despite the difficulty in organising extensive in-country preparation activities, this is something I would push to make a compulsory element of future projects and communicate this with stakeholders and funding bodies. Although we identified debriefing as a crucial element of both the creative and evaluative process, there was still not enough time allocated to this, something I will also definitely rectify in future projects. (Can put note about follow up in Jan 2018.)

Once the women had arrived and the project was in full motion it was an absolute whirlwind of emotion. The women were very quick to acknowledge that they were there to talk about gender-based issues they face in Timor-Leste and develop their art forms on behalf of other Timorese women. They also strongly identified in the first workshop that they felt women themselves were perpetuating gender-based issues in Timor-Leste and that they were very unhappy with the level of support that women gave each other. From there on it became very important that as a group the women modelled the supportive behaviour that they wanted their communities to develop. Without a director, and with the huge task of discovering and representing our own 13 stories as well as the stories of so many other women, we began an incredible collaborative process. We only had approximately 32 hours of creation time in the studio to develop our performance, with the rest of our time spent in a diverse range of creative workshops including;

  • Film – storyboarding, editing, green-screen and visual effects, shooting for live performance

  • Bollywood dance

  • Contemporary dance

  • Indigenous Australian dance

  • Hip-Hop

  • Physical Theatre – Butoh, Suzuki, Viewpoints

  • Process drama

  • Clowning and Street Theatre

  • Dramaturgy

  • Singing

  • Sound production

  • Stage management


It was very interesting to review these programming and scheduling decisions post-project – how they influenced the creative process and the women’s interpretation of the artistic content – particularly as these decisions were predominantly made with logistics, group dynamics and cultural considerations in mind. With such limited interaction with some of these art forms, the interpretation and implementation of learnings into the performance was quite unique. For example, creative content that came out of the two-hour contemporary dance workshop, which some of the participants attended featured in the final performance, and was identified as a highlight by the audience. It involved three of the women and incorporated the women’s expressive and dramatic acting style into a more movement-based and fluid format, without dialogue and set to a contemporary English song. Similarly, the incredible relationship built between the women and the local Indigenous artists, dancer Jeanette Fabila and singer Ruth Ghee, resulted in an opening performance that the included a body percussion welcome dance and chant modified to include Timorese languages performed exactly as taught.

The main parameters around the creative process included the limited timeframe, the vaguely pre-determined theme of women’s issues and commitment to include all the women’s multi-art form skills. An attempt was made to assign roles during their first Dramaturgy workshop, however these didn’t really take effect and the group continued to work in small organically formed groups, focusing on particular stories or scenes for the show and utilising their different skills sets. It was later identified by several participants, at the end of the project, that they would recommend nominating a director if the project was repeated, however arguably this would have created a different collaborative process and performance outcome. The multi-art form approach saw all of the women participate in new art forms in the performance, led by those who had more experience in that particular form. One participant commented in her mid-project interview that she felt the experience and all the workshops were giving her an appreciation and understanding of different art forms. Ultimately, not having assigned roles, particularly in projects like this where a new temporary company is set up, lead to many positive outcomes. It allowed for a lot more flexibility, with the women able to take risks and step into different art forms. It also created a supportive atmosphere in which the women were encouraged by their peers to take the lead in areas they were confident.

The role of creative arts, in particular dance

The role of creative art in the exploration of gender-based issues for this project was the central platform for communication between the women as well as with the audience and the community. The women were all very familiar with the concept of using creative arts as a transformative tool and had already been doing so in their community.

However, working intensively in a female only group, outside of their community motivated the women and myself to tell personal stories, that we may not otherwise have been comfortable sharing. The creative environment made it possible to do so in a more general way and under the pre-tense that you were representing someone else’s story even if it was your own. The process of developing how you successfully and creatively communicate a particular issue or story to your audience inevitably requires you to explore that issue from multiple perspectives.

The group identified that they wanted to create a performance that could convey a message to the Australian and Timorese audience in Brisbane. This in itself was a very unique and important experience for the women as they felt they could express certain things to the far-away Australian audience that they couldn’t in their own community for personal, societal and cultural reasons, whilst at the same time connecting with Timorese people in Brisbane who could relate to their experiences.

The performance was in Tetun, English and Bahasa Indonesian. It also featured Makasae and Fataluku, which are regional dialects in Timor-Leste, as well as Eastern Torres Strait Island language – a result of working with a Torres Strait Island singer in Brisbane. As a group, we struggled with and argued over how to communicate with a multilingual audience using multilingual performers. This was where my experience and practice as a dancer and an ESL teacher became particularly useful. Madeleine and I encouraged the group in our facilitation of the creative studio and rehearsal time, to reconsider how they could use dance and movement in their acting as an aesthetic and communication tool to replace dialogue.

Dance and movement functioned as an example of non-verbal performative communication, and one that could be manipulated to be less literal when addressing sensitive issues as well as more powerful for communicating emotional states without relying on language. This was important as it created unity in the commonality of emotion felt by the women across multiple stories and circumstances. Although the stories of gender-based violence varied between Timor-Leste and Australia, we often discussed how the feelings associated were the same.

Another key role for dance within the performance was as a debriefing tool for the audience. When you take the audience on such a personal and emotional journey and ask them to empathise with these issues, I think it is part of your responsibility to debrief with them. This is also an important process for the performers to de-role and connect with the audience in the present space. The Feto Hamutuk performance ended with a song, during which the audience were invited down onto the stage space to participate in a simple traditional Timorese circle dance. This joyous moment lasted for at least five minutes and when it was over erupted into applause and laughter from the participants and the audience, highlighting the relief felt from exerting and expressing the pent up emotional energy.


There are four key recommendations that I have derived from this experience and would give to practitioners or organisations embarking on cultural community development and community arts projects.

  • 2 is better that 1 – The importance in this project of having a lead facilitator and assistant facilitator cannot be understated. I would have struggled immensely to execute a project as beneficial and successful as this without Madeleine Boyd. The demands of intensive project work can inhibit your ability to be critically reflective and having the support of someone with a thorough understanding of the project allows us both to monitor, debrief and review each other’s practice on a daily basis. It also benefited the collaborative process with the women as it mitigated the dynamic of having the facilitator as a ‘director’.

  • Scheduling is everything – The balance between providing an immersive and new experience, and emulating the participant’s usual daily routines is very important and shapes the outcomes and creative output of a project. Logistics are not separate to objectives and expected outcomes.

  • Performative outputs have considerable benefits – The performance put a lot of pressure on the participants, Madeleine and I. However, by accident this provided ideal conditions to explore the very notion of ‘supporting each other’ that the women had identified as being so important and missing from the fight for gender equality. The performance also provided a greater feeling of achievement and a platform for practice-based learning as the participants could incorporate new skills and knowledge from the workshops. It allowed them to consider creating for different audiences and how they could manipulate language and non-verbal communication in performance.

  • Indigenous cultural contact creates important connections – Our Indigenous Australian workshop series was incredibly successful and important for connecting the women to Brisbane and Australia. There was an overwhelming synergy and understanding between the women and our female Indigenous facilitators based on common creative and cultural elements such as rhythms, movement, language and history.

  • Cross-cultural facilitation skills are crucial and a learnt skill – Despite providing our facilitators with cultural awareness packages, and selecting them based on their experience with multicultural arts or their own diverse cultural backgrounds, this did not necessarily equate to good cross-cultural communication skills in facilitation. Several facilitators also stated that they felt unprepared for their workshops. However, one of our facilitators, who had little experience working cross-culturally, came and met the women a week prior to facilitating a workshop with them, enabling her to tailor her approach and content, as well as build rapport. There was a similar result with facilitators who ran multiple workshops with the women and therefor had the opportunity to also modify their approach and methods. In future providing pre-facilitation meet and greet opportunities, as well as face-to-face cross-cultural awareness and facilitation training.