Marrugeku’s work speaks to hope: between acknowledging the past and exploring the potentials of the future. It speaks to the reality of difference and of the need to transform he cultural space. This is a way of productively understanding Australia’s local place in the world.
November 21, 2009
Each vignette marries distinct dance languages in remarkable ways: acrobatics meld with classical ballet lines, traditional indigenous steps slide into hip-hop and Japanese martial arts manoeuvres. Innovative storytelling and sheer athleticism aside, the show is memorable for several stand-out performances. Trevor Jamieson, whose bare-chested pirouettes with a horseman’s whip are nothing short of extraordinary, deserves special mention, as does Dalisa Pigram, whose fluid leaps and pounces neatly contrast Yumi Umiumare’s Samurai stances.
August 18, 2007
‘Westside Story of the Pearl coast’
In the electric field: Thus the question of cultural identity that arrises this Thursday is: Who am I? Australian? Japanese? Chinese? Someone from the past? Some misplaced foreigner or an original inhabitant? Or am I all of them a little bit?
Karaoke is the vocabulary for contemporary art in Burning Daylight which brings these tensions of multiple identities to the audience. The Buhne stage portrays the constraints of small town life. Broome’s provincial-ness. They sing one by one, the Japanese, The Chinese, the Aboriginal. The songs yearn for love which is ‘as rare as a black pearl’ and are nourished by the sweet memories of the past. In my head though the films are about loss of place, leaving, racial separation. All this is a fight without a victor and the forms of traditional and modern dance are worked together as well as is possible to tell this story.
Neues Bulacher Tagblatt
August 18, 2007
‘In the quicksand of cultural identity’
The Australian production Burning Daylight draws from the strength of the art of the imagination of theatre and dance, which with the darkness of the lake stage, the precise lighting and the suggestive live music, gives something sacred. You are shown a production in which the concentration, compelling humour and seriousness keep you firmly compelled. With all this happening the coldness of the weather on the open lake stage was completely forgotten.
October 30, 2009
Revelation found in broad daylight
AN Aboriginal musical does not have to sound like Bran Nue Dae, and Aboriginal dancing can be something entirely different from Bangarra. That’s the message, loud, clear and defiant, behind Burning Daylight, a million-dollar investment by a host of backers, including the West Australian and federal governments, and the consortium of presenters known as Mobile States.
For Rachael Swain and Dalisa Pigram, the co-artistic directors of Broome-based company, Marrugeku, this dance theatre production provides a model for the next generation of indigenous theatre.
“I think we’re on to something new, something others can use as a template, but we’ve only just come to that realisation ourselves,” Pigram says.
The process has been slow, almost five years of planning and development, with the first seed production, a collaboration with Marguerite Pepper, performed in project form in Broome and Zurich. (The Zurich audience didn’t understand a great deal but got the feeling and responded warmly, Swain says.)
Both women believe that what they have done and the way they have gone about it are crucial for what they call “sustainable public storytelling” or, in other words, connecting theatre with the heart of communities, not just as entertainment but as cultural embodiment.
Patrick Dodson, Yawuru lawman and Pigram’s great-uncle (her “pop”, or grand-father, in Yawuru clan terms), who has been part of the consultancy process behind the creation of this show, says it’s important that indigenous cultures develop performance outside ritual ceremony, so young people understand the stories are not just about them but also for and by them.
“We’ve got to utilise the technology in a way that helps to get the storytelling across and to do it in a relevant medium for young people, so that they can clearly get a sense that it’s not ancient history,” Dodson says, talking about the way Burning Daylight incorporates live hip-hop music and big-screen film projections created by Warwick Thornton, director of Oscar contender Samson and Delilah.
“To get young people to do things in a playthat is not directly linked to the protocol and practices in a ceremonial setting gives a good foundation for them to begin to understand culture.”
The weary but intensely focused faces of Pigram and Swain, just a day before Burning Daylight had its premiere last night in Broome, in an open-air, makeshift theatre space on the edge of town, suggest just how ambitious are their ideas about performance, how difficult the task they set themselves, how thoroughly all belief, all courage, all skill must have been tested in the long process of this show’s making. “We don’t do it because it’s fun,” Pigram says. “We do it because we believe, from our hearts, in what we are doing. It’s one thing to get permission to re-create something in an obvious way, but it takes a long time to create art in a way that’s inspired by culture.”
That’s not to say that the end product, what audiences in Broome, then Perth, Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart will see during the next month as Burning Daylight tours, is a fun-free performance. Quite the contrary. Although Swain says those who saw Marrugeku’s first big-scale outdoor production, Mimi, may be taken aback at this new direction, this speedy, cartoon-like, tongue-in-cheek, karaoke-inspired, bar-room portrait of Broome, and its “mongrel” people. This is attention-grabbing theatre, designed to pick you up from the opening off-stage sounds of incessantly barking mongrel dogs, and plonk you right in the middle of a riotous, slightly dangerous, balmy-night party.
Trevor Jamieson, who co-wrote the groundbreaking Ngapartji Ngapartji, plays an Aboriginal stockman, appearing like a vision from the past among the revellers during karaoke night at a pub in the raucous heart of Broome. In red boots with his chest bare beneath a fancy pink vest, tight jeans cinched by an enormous belt buckle, Jamieson’s character shrieks trouble, an embodiment of sensuality wrapped inside a body taut with desire. Around him, as he struts and glowers, throng a host of ghosts, all those who have lived and died in this town once known as the Asian wild west.
This is a show shot through with desire: for sex, for fun, for a good time. But beyond all the surface desires, and going much deeper, it’s a show about identity, belonging, about the yearning for the sense of self that comes through identification with a place and a community. Broome, once the only place in Australia exempted from the White Australia policy to allow the pearling trade to flourish with the assistance of workers from places such as Malaysia and Japan, may look like a tourist oasis for those who fly in and head to a luxurious resort on Cable Beach. While the mission stories told in Jimmy Chi’s musical, Bran Nue Day, were sung in what Pigram and Swain call “saltwater music” style, that nostalgia, easy and comforting, is none too subtly undermined in Burning Daylight.
With strong visual references to Tracey Moffatt’s cheesy send-up photographs of exotic native portrayals, with their sleazy voyeuristic titillation and underlying cruel violence against the women portrayed, Burning Daylight sets up a series of stories within stories, where passionate cross-cultural romance comes up against disapproval and institutional violence. The modern-day party-goers at the karaoke night sing about love, while the film screens behind them show what was probably their own family history, the deported Malay father, the ostracised Aboriginal woman said to have “lured” a white man into marriage.
Evoking those ghosts, says director Swain, giving voice to what may not have been said out loud before, is as much an ethical conundrum as an artistic one.
“When we get the balance right, the feeling traps you, builds on a poetic level,” she says.
“One of the things we attempt to say is, this is about Broome and it’s very particular, but there’s this issue about young people everywhere, young people whose grandparents and parents have left country behind, and who lead culturally sophisticated lives, haunted by thishistory, the ghosts of the past that won’t let them go.”
As Pigram says, Burning Daylight is, like her, “pure Broome; that is, mongrel breed from way back”.
Pigram is an extraordinary dancer, her solo work and with the other heterogeneous collection of performers in Burning Daylight breathtakingly good. Like every one of the cast, she seems to move in entirely her own way, a body that is memory and future tense.
This is partly the result of Marrugeku’s decision to work with choreographer Serge Aime Coulibaly, from West African country Burkino Faso, who has also worked for many years with Belgian company, Les Ballet C de laB.
Coulibaly talks about how really contemporary dance, the kind that is relevant across the world, and not just in the places where it is conceived, is created by drawing out of the dancer’s body their own story, their own connection to the world and the places they come from.
He brought, he says, “new eyes” to the Burning Daylight project, hooking on to their desire to break out of any “fixed idea” of what contemporary indigenous dance is. “This is a new process, a new aesthetic,” he says. “You carry in your body your story, and so it’s a process of learning to use your body to create what you want to say.”
Swain comments that the skill and success of the Bangarra style of dance has tended to lock audience expectations, here and overseas, into a narrow range, as though all indigenous dance will have that same vocabulary, that same aesthetic.
“We’re looking for accessible contemporary forms of culture that also carry that culture forward into the future,” she says.
That’s also why she sought out Perth rapper Dazastah, who is part of the on-stage band comprising Marrugeku co-founder and musician Lorrae Coffin and Justin Gray, lead singer of Broome rock band Kross Kulcha. Dazastah, whose hip-hop band Downsyde is on the crest of international success, has Burmese-Malay heritage. It slots him in perfectly to this production that is not just about hybridity but, as Coulibaly says, one that brings forth these stories in movement. Dazastah closes the show with a poem about what it means to be mongrel breed, and how it swirls about members of the present generation as they relive the patterns of the past.
He says this experience of working in an ensemble is taking his own performance as a hip-hop artist into areas he had not imagined, disciplining him to control how the words are delivered. With a hip-hop performance, he says, you keep it nice and simple, letting the rhythms drive the meaning, but when you’re there with a microphone, responsible for carrying the meaning of what the dancers around you are embodying, “that’s a whole different kind of performance”.
From a family of musicians who used to tour playing big band dance music, Dazastah fronts this different audience with panache, confident his rapping – a hybrid style forged by a new wave of Australian performers he says will soon be feted internationally for their particular style, getting more sophisticated all the time – is strong enough to carry the weight of responsibility for the finale of Burning Daylight.
He has the final say. His poem about mongrel breeds yearning to connect with their histories accompanies the exit of Jamieson’s stockman, Pigram, Yumi Umiumare (whose dance that turns plastic barrier sheeting into a kimono is a knockout), powerful Sermsah Bin Saad, febrile, twitchy, mesmerising Owen Maher, the athletic Kathy Cogill and Antonia Djiagween (a Broome-based trainee with the company). “It’s like all creative things work,” Dazastah says. “We hadn’t planned that the show would end like that, but that’s how it turned out.”
Dazastah says he has been “egged on” by the directors and other performers in Burning Daylight to take his hip- hop performances into new territory. Now, he says, it’s up to him to convince others, his backers and audiences, that he can do more and do it better. That has also been Marrugeku’s project, to change the perception of what indigenous dance and theatre can do, and how it can be done.
All the bits that “didn’t fit” into Burning Daylight are being worked into a new youth production called Buru, which has been developing the skills of 10 young Broome performers. As Dodson says, these are productions designed to change young people’s minds that culture is “for old people, something special and unique that I really can’t get involved with”.
isssue #94 Dec-Jan 2009
The title of Marrugeku’s latest work, burning daylight, seems on the surface a contrary choice. The show conjures a night-time Broome and its denizens—young people at a loose end after being expelled from a bar and visited on the street by unwelcome ghosts from the town’s past. With all the ease of a hollywood or bollywood musical, burning daylight’s night people slip into song and dance with ever growing passion, as if supplanting time-filling with an unconscious quest to fulfil some deep, unspeakable need. This is night work. Marrugeku’s Broome fantasia is intensified by a design that is a self-consciously stagey abstraction of the town (inspired in part, says a program note, by Tracey Moffat’s films Night Cries and Bedevil) and by the use of the back wall of the bar and a large billboard as projection screens, often worked simultaneously. A large, semi-circular performance area is ringed by the bar, a road leading into the distance and lined with striking boab trees, a tin shed inhabited by musicians and a park bench beneath a pole—which of course must be climbed and swung from in the time-honoured manner of musicals. The screens evoke the open-air cinemas of tropical towns, the films mimic 40s and 50s B-grade melodramas from Hollywood’s dream factory, while the accompanying karaoke-style singing to the onscreen lyics suggests the present—though the songs hark back to romantic balladry—and the popular fantasy of being a great singer (they’re very good in this show). This is dream work. Burning Daylight doesn’t delineate a simple story—it’s played out as a street concert-cum-musical (a relative of Les Ballets C de la B’s rooftop party, Iets Op Bach, 1999). This makes the performance all the more dream-like, the floating structure allowing for an immersive historical layering that merges three generations. The films, for example, include photographs from early 20th century Broome, 40s-ish movie recreations of that earlier period and contemporary karaoke sung live. Here the stage performers appear as their grandparents of a century ago. This collapsing of time and condensing of generations is the stuff of dreams but a deft means to engender a sense of history and inheritance. After their expulsion onto the street, the night dwellers’ tensions and reveries are interrupted by the arrival of a black, whip-cracking cowboy (Trevor Jamieson) dressed in red and prancing like a warrior. He provokes immediate wariness, then confrontation, later attraction and then does battle with the ghost of a geisha (Yumi Umiumare). Either the cowboy is a ghost himself or his arrival has unleashed the past into the present; something is being worked through. The unfolding, largely danced, impressionistic interplay between the townspeople and the stranger is interpolated with the films and their karaoke accompaniment. These are central to Burning Daylight and are based on real events in Broome’s history. In the first of the three films, Stir Fry (“She was a caged bird in a foreign land. He was a lonesome cowboy. Could he set her free?”), after being struck by her cowboy boyfriend, a Broome geisha elopes at night with another man—dressed in red and perhaps the father of the onstage red cowboy. He is killed by the boyfriend in a shootout. A small boy, whom we presume to be the son of the geisha and her lover, grimly watches his mother place flowers on the lover’s grave. A long stick hangs from the boy’s hand—precursor perhaps to the whip we see wielded by the grown man on stage. The second film, Black Pearl (“Can Love Beat the Law?”) depicts a jealous white bar owner betraying an Aboriginal employee to the police for having an affair with a white man. The woman and her children are removed to a reserve. (A newspaper spinning onscreen is headlined, “Native Woman Entraps White Man: Woman Removed For Her Own Good.”) In the final scene in this film, a small boy dressed in red as a cowboy, steps out from behind a shed and aims his toy gun at the policemen. In the third film, Troubled Water (“They Dared To Cross The Colour Line”) a Malay man married to an Aboriginal woman goes to work on a pearl rigger but is deported when he returns to port, never to see his family again. The son ties his father’s abandoned red bandana around his head. Jamieson’s cowboy, as the child of an era in which white law not only oppressed Aboriginal people but gave licence for cultural groups to turn on each other, appears then to embody all the accumulated wrongs, despair and anger that unconsciously haunt Broome’s psyche. Yet, like Broome itself and its night dwellers, troubled yet richly creative, the cowboy is an ambiguous figure—a winking, narcissistic charmer, undeterred by his poor reception, hanging out as if expecting sooner or later to fit in, and providing moments of emotional support. Burning Daylight’s choreography resonates with this ambiguity as Jamieson slips in and out of group dancing, withdrawing to observe or suddenly displaying intimacy. The cowboy is reminiscent of the classic trickster, a wicked messenger, bringing the unwanted unconscious to attention. I’m unravelling and reassembling my dreamlike recollections of the show, and my account of the role and purpose of the cowboy is possibly obvious or wrong (the companion book to the production has varying accounts), although the continuity inherent in the red motif associated with the boy children in the film and the cowboy seems undeniable. What is not clear is why the geisha ghost appears vengeful, forcing the cowboy to engage in a gloriously sustained battle, compelling the night community to join in. Perhaps hers is dis- or mis-placed anger for blighted lives. Certainly the cowboy’s recollection of her seems fond: he places the very same flowers on her grave, upstage, that she placed on her dead lover’s in the film as the scowling child looked on. If Burning Daylight relies for much of its magic and meaning on the dreamy indeterminancy engendered by the overlaying of historical periods and interplay of artforms and images in a night time reverie, it risks opacity by being less than clear in a key area—the narrative you’re having when you’re not having a narrative. As well, it was easy to miss significant clues because each of the three films actually comprises two discrete versions shown simultaneously on the two stage screens. While this ‘splitting’ again heightens the sense of dream it also undercuts the revelatory transparency the work otherwise achieves. This was compounded, though to a lesser degree, by cast changes that meant characters in the films were played by others on stage; of course that can’t be helped. Post-show queryings aside, the immediate experience of Burning Daylight was deeply enjoyable. The meticulously crafted film mini-melodramas were indicative of the way the production worked its magic, managing to be at once amusingly parodic and deeply affecting, embracing its audience with popular song and dance forms put to complex purpose. This integrative approach was highly evident in the distinctive choreography, an ever shifting synthesis of modern dance and traditional Aboriginal dance, hip hop, gymnastics, Japanese dance, club moves, martial arts and elements of the African dance of co-choreographer Serge Aime Coulibaly, performed with commitment and confidence. In the DVD that comes with the book of the show, co-choreographer Dalisa Pigram speaks of the challenge of ‘staging’ Aboriginal dance: “Our dance is small, [Serge’s] is so big.” Other than moments when there appeared to be a desire to fill the stage and the dancing could have been more focused, the balance seemed about right. Most exciting was the sense of an emerging, characterful choreographic language, rich in detail, unusual shapes and gestures. Jamieson, Pigram and Uniumare excelled in solo passages in their very different ways. The latter two absorbed a great length of orange roadworks mesh into their performances—Pigram boldly cartwheeling with it, Umiumare wrapping herself up as a bizarre living sculpture—both expressing, true to the spirit of the show, the creative capacity to take whatever is at hand into their art. Pigram’s solo, performed to Jamieson singing the Pigram Brothers’ “Dear Alistair” (as close as the show gets to referring to the local native title claim), is a central moment in Burning Daylight, expressing intense emotional connection to land and family, in which the release from the plastic mesh, perhaps emblematic of both progress and constraint, seems almost cathartic. The final collective dance performed to rapper Dazastah’s melancholic, addictive Ikebana Tango (“How come me,/ The past come to haunt my soul,/ How come me,/ The past come to call my soul,/ How come me,/ The past come to taunt my soul/ wanna take me home and won’t let me go”) sustains the sense of a haunting for which there can be no easy exorcism. The night work, the work of dreams is not finished. The dancing however seems more optimistic in its pairings of past and present, its sense of youthful communal strength and, not least, a shared, unique artistry. Burning Daylight is an engrossing entertainment from a skilled, charismatic cast, members of an inventive collaborative team producing a complex work in which a rich culture engages recuparatively with its past.