Over the past 40 years, arts impresario Michael Leslie MFA has amassed an impressive career in the performing arts sector in Australia.
He was founding member of the National Aboriginal & Islander Skills Development Association (NAISDA) NSW before moving to the US to further his training with the world-renowned Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre in New York. He graduated in 1983 with a Certficate in Dance.
Upon returning to Australia, Michael established performing arts institutions including Co-Founder of Black Swan Theatre Company (BSTC), Co-Founder of Marrugeku Physical Theatre Company, Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts (ACPA) QLD and Founder of Michael Leslie Foundation for the Arts (MLFA). He also designed and delivered education and training programs for the BSTC and Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA).
Michael completed a Masters in Fine Arts at the College of Fine Arts (COFA) UNSW Sydney in 2018.
In 1981-83, Michael trained with Alvin Ailey American Dance Centre, New York - supported by The Churchill Fellowship and Aboriginal Arts Board. (Photo: Gary DeLoatch)
Dance theatre production "3.3 and Beyond" for Master of Fine Art degree 2018. This projects records Michael's history as an Aboriginal dancer. (Photo: Elaine Syron)
Michael Leslie (front right) the original choreographer of the acclaimed musical theatre Bran Nue Dae. It was remounted in 1993 under Black Swan Theatre Company and has since been produced film.
"Michael is an extremely gifted dancer and choreographer and I have no doubt that his choreography of Bran Nue Dae was a vital part of its great success."
(Janet Homes à Court).
Black Swan Theatre Company was born with the vision of the late Andrew Ross. In 1991, Andrew alongside founding Directors Michael Leslie, Janet Homes à Court and the then Minister for the Arts Peter Foss. At that time, Michael was original choreographer of the theatrical production for the widely acclaimed, ‘Bra Nue Dae’ which was the impetus for the establishment of Black Swan Theatre Company.
Marrugeku began with the project Mimi which was commissioned by the Festival of Perth to premiere in 1996. Mimi was developed from an original concept by Kamilaroi/Mandandanji choreographer Michael Leslie in collaboration with Stalker Theatre, then known worldwide for acrobatic dancing on stilts.(Photo: Mimi, Marrugeku)
The Queensland Government, through Arts Queensland, responded by engaging Indigenous impresario Michael Leslie to establish ACPA in 1997. The first classes were held in 1998, at the Metro Arts Building in Edward Street. Only one accredited performing arts course was offered at this time.
Rio Tinto ABAF Qantas Link Regional Awards, Michael Leslie Foundation for the Performing Arts 2009. Australia Business Arts Foundation (ABAF) (formerly the Australia Foundation for Culture & the Humanities) Director (3yr appointment), Chairman Mr Richard Pratt AC - appointed by Federal Minister for the Arts. (Photo: Sam Walsh, Alan Joyce & Michael Leslie)
The Michael Leslie Foundation for the Performing Arts was established for Rio Tinto Pilbara Performing Arts Program. Since its beginnings in 2006, the Michael Leslie Foundation for the Performing Arts has been empowering children in the Pilbara to reach their potential through the performing arts. The many programs run by the foundation all share a common goal of helping people gain self confidence and overcome self-defeating attitudes.(Photo: Eugene Lynden)
One of the five founding students of the National Aboriginal & Islander Skills Development Association (NAISDA), Michael started his dance career at the age of 20. After two years of training, NAISDA founder Carole Johnson recommended Michael to the prestigious Alvin Ailey American Dance Centre, the official school of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater - that offers world-class dance training in New York.
Michael graduated from Alvin Ailey in 1983 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts and continued to live and work in New York. He spent 12 months in Tahiti and returned to Australian to live in Alice Springs in 1988, where he began teaching dance to Aboriginal children. He then moved to Perth and continued conducting dance workshops before being approached to choreography the original production of the acclaimed musical Bran Nue Dae.
Black Swan Theatre Company was born in 1991 by founding Directors Michael Leslie and Janet Homes à Court. At that time, Michael was original choreographer of the theatrical production for the widely acclaimed, ‘Bran Nue Dae’ which was the impetus for the establishment of Black Swan Theatre Company.
Michael was appointed Associate Director for the theatre company and engaged politicians and bureaucrats to support the development of what has now become the state theatre company of Western Australia. During this time, Michael also developed the Aboriginal Musical Theatre Training Program that provide skills development for Aboriginal performing arts students.
Graduates include Leah Purcell, Trevor Jamison, Kerrianne Cox, Ningali Lawford, Steven Oliver, Kamahi Djordon King and Ursula Yovich, Mark Sheppherd.
In 1993, Michael was approached by WAAPA to bring the Aboriginal Musical Theatre Training Program (developed for Black Swan Theatre Company) to their company. For the next two years, Michael worked to develop what became the Certificate IV Bridging Course for WAAPA. Graduates from this course include actor Meyne Wyatt and actress Shari Sebbens.
Marrugeku borne out of the project Mimi which was commissioned by the Festival of Perth to premiere in 1996. Marrugeku is a Kunwinjku language word which is explained as ‘clever men’.
Mimi was developed from an original concept by Kamilaroi/Mandandanji choreographer Michael Leslie in collaboration with Stalker Theatre, then known worldwide for acrobatic dancing on stilts. Michael’s concept was to develop a physical theatre company that was multi-disciplinary, cross-cultural and site specific (the term back then was hybrid). Michael explains “When I say cross-cultural site-specific, I’m invoking the meaning of physically interconnected with the landscape of our stories.”
Mimi was like nothing that had been seen before and created a sensation in Australia and worldwide (Marrugeku 2022).
A national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander performing arts training institution was first proposed in 1994, in the then Prime Minister’s national arts policy, Creative Nation. By 1997, the Queensland Government, through Arts Queensland, engaged Indigenous impresario Michael Leslie to establish ACPA. The first classes were held in 1998, at the Metro Arts Building in Edward Street, Brisbane.
Only one accredited performing arts course was offered at this time. Michael said “Part of the philosophy of ACPA was that students were trained to do group devised works to develop their own products”. Michael organised regional student tours to Hope Vale, Kuranda, Bloomfield River, Cairns and Weipa as well as international tours to Los Angeles (US) and Osaka (Japan).
2007-2011 Michael was recruited by Rio Tinto to establish the Michael Leslie Foundation for the Arts was established in 2007. The Foundation delivered a range of performing arts programs for youth across the Pilbara region in WA. Program venues included Karratha, Pannawonica, Roebourne, Tom Price and Wickham involving 11 schools and up to 800 students. Students from this program have gone on to successfully audition for elite institutions such as the National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA) and the Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA).
Residencies were established for students at National Institute of the Dramatic Arts (NIDA) in Sydney and National Institute of Circus Arts (NICA) in Melbourne and workshops were delivered by Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) from Perth.
Students from this program have gone on to successfully audition for elite institutions such as the National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA) and the Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA).
Michael partnered with Anglo Gold Ashanti to deliver performing arts programs or youth through the Goldfields region in WA. Programs were delivered in Laverton, Leonora and Kalgoorlie Boulder.