Ashley Ruska Thompson and Aaron Ruska of Spirits of the Red Sand

Interview

Spirits of the Red Sand
Beenleigh Historical Village, 205 Main Street, Beenleigh QLD 4207
spiritsredsand.com

Ashley (Ash) Ruska-Thompson raises his head to greet us with a warm smile as we enter the courtyard behind the stage door at Spirits of the Red Sand. His cousin Aaron Ruska has just finished applying white ochre to his own arms and gives a friendly nod of greeting, as Ash drops his head down again to finish rubbing white ochre through his hair, preparing for the morning’s performance. 

During their evening Spirits of the Red Sand performance, Ash and Aaron slip into the characters of Muggera and Marlu, to tell the stories of their Yugambeh ancestors through a roving theatre experience. Using the Beenleigh Historical Village as the backdrop to the story, the show is set at the intersection of Aboriginal and European life in the nineteenth century. Today though, they will be delivering a captivating education experience for a school group, who will leave the purpose built Dreamtime Theatre with new knowledge of the oldest continual living culture in the world.

Ashley Ruska Thompson and Aaron Ruska of Spirits of the Red Sand

Spirits of the Red Sand is located on Yugambeh country and both men are grandsons of local Cultural Elder and co-founder, Uncle Eddie Ruska, a proud descendent and Elder of the Yuggera, Nunukul and Yugambeh people.

>Ash and Aaron are seasoned performers who have previously travelled the world performing at multicultural festivals from London to Rome, Nice to Taipei, Hong Kong to Kuala Lumpur and beyond, as part of the Nunukul Yuggera Aboriginal Dance troupe. First established by their grandfather in the 1990’s, the dance troupe was a way of engaging local Aboriginal youth with their past, present and future, through participating in cultural performances, each honing their special knowledge passed down through their Elders.

“The travel was so eye opening. It was great to meet so many people from different cultures at these big festivals, but it began to get harder once we had young families,” Ash concedes. We all wanted a way we could share our culture at home from a permanent base.

Ash now has two children and Aaron has three.

“Zem gets to come to work with Dad when he’s been good,” Ashley smiles as he speaks of his five year old son who wins over the audience with occasional participation in the show alongside his Dad and Uncle.

“We’ve all been dancing since we were that age too,” Aaron nods proudly. “That’s how we keep our culture alive, by getting the kids involved at an early age.”

While on an Indigenous Tour in New Zealand in 2015, Uncle Eddie and the Ruska family group visited Tamaki Maori Village. They were inspired to see guests from all over the world interacting with the culture, performances and storytelling of New Zealand’s Maori people at the Village. Working with cultural tourism storyteller Mike Tamaki, who had developed the experience, they began collaborating to bring a similar concept to Australia.

Along with cultural elders from their community, Ash and Aaron were part of the roundtable consultation process that led to the development of the generational storytelling that formed the foundation of the Spirits of the Red Sand experience. Their dream was to create an opportunity that would draw respect and admiration for the Aboriginal culture through their own storytelling in a local context.

“It’s been good to be able to keep telling stories of our families and ancestors, and sharing our culture here at home through regular work with Spirits of the Red Sand,” Ash tells. “Our Nan used to tell us that we would never make a living from dancing,” he says with a chuckle, “and yet here we are still.” 

Their other goal was to develop opportunities for the local Aboriginal performers and team members, to thrive through sustainable work opportunities and career development. 

After the evening shows, the Tin Cup Cafe housed in the old Beenleigh Railway Station building – part of the Beenleigh Historical Village and located beside their outdoor performance space – serves a robust dinner with a subtle introduction to bush food infusions. And plans are in place to introduce a new experience for guests to explore the bush food garden onsite, followed by a tasting of inhouse baked goods at the cafe, demonstrating the delicious uses of bush foods in contemporary cuisine. 

Aaron’s mother Leanne is the head-chef who creates the bush foods inspired menu and who will pass down her special knowledge on a new bush tucker walk.  The staff who work with her are all descendents of Australia’s First Nations people providing additional career opportunities beyond the performance space. 

Aaron himself has a deep interest in learning more about ways of using bush foods in contemporary cuisine. He has recently returned to study after stepping away from earlier study in cookery at TAFE, after he went off to perform around the world. He has now picked it up again and is in the process of completing his Certificate 3 in commercial cookery at the Institute of Culinary Excellence (ICE). 

I love discovering more about how to use bush flavours. The flavours of the earth like bush dukkah, and how to use them in fine dining,” he says, “Food is also another way of storytelling about our culture.”

The team at Spirits of the Red Sand celebrated being named the #1 Must Do Queensland Experience in 2020, despite having to farewell international audiences last year. Instead, they are enjoying welcoming an increasing audience of local and interstate guests at activities throughout the week, along with a raft of new education and corporate group experiences on offer during the day. 

Spirits of the Red Sand performance

From the interactive Welcome to Country Aboriginal Experience, cultural awareness workshops, cultural education programs, the bush foods garden tour followed by tastings in the Tin Cup Cafe, and the primary Spirits of the Red Sand evening shows, Ashleigh and Aaron are grateful to be doing work they love right here at home as they continue to present and share their culture.

It’s great to engage and share with kids through the schools that visit too,” Ash indicates the group waiting next door as they get the call that it’s time to start today’s show.

Ash enters the stage and opens with a Welcome to Country. His voice has the timbre of a seasoned storyteller: gentle, well-paced and perfectly paced to engage his captive audience of mid-level primary school children.

I would like to begin by acknowledging the Bullongin, Kombumerri, Cudgenburra, Moorungburra, Tulgigin, Gugingin, Migunberri, Mununjali, and Wanggeriburra people, Traditional Custodians of the land on which we gather today, and pay my respects to their Elders past and present. I extend that respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples here today…”

Aaron joins him on stage, smouldering native plants in a smoking ceremony. The cleansing properties of the herbal smoke in the traditional smoking ceremony is conducted to cleanse the area of bad spirits and to promote the protection and well-being of visitors.
Together they explain how the wood for the didgeridoos is selected from the forests, the role of termites in the hollowing out of the instrument, and the wash of creeks and rivers in refining them.

Ancient calls vibrate through the wooden instrument, as master musician Aaron weaves stories around the students through the music, transporting the audience across thousands of years of Aboriginal history, across land and sea as the resonant tones carry around the room.

And in the seats, a captive young audience sits with eyes glued to the performers and multimedia presentation swirling around them, as together they delve into stories of the dreaming on a journey that will help them begin to discover the depth of the history of those who have walked the land they now live on, for the thousands of years before them.

Author: Jacqueline Bawtree 2021 for Logan City Council.

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