Astonishing work tackles two painful themes in Australia

Rating: four and a half stars.

Diversity is a word that gets a lot of use these days. But rarely do we get the chance to see and experience it so convincingly in a performance, as we do in Marrugeku’s Jurrungu Ngan-ga [Straight Talk].

This is an astonishing work in many ways. It tackles two painful themes in today’s Australia: the incarceration of Indigenous people and detainment of asylum seekers. While dance is the main form of communication, there is also spoken word (in language as well as English), song and video.

Marrugeku grew out of an Australian Indigenous project in West Arnhem Land 25 years ago. Moving its base to Broome, it adopted the city’s diverse cultural mix and is now an intercultural company with remote and urban homes. Sydney’s Carriageworks is another (it took over this season’s backing after Marrugeku withdrew from the Sydney Festival in protest at Israeli sponsorship for another festival production).

So the nine dancers in Jurrungu Ngan-Ga are a fascinating blend of skin colours, body shapes and cultural backgrounds that are imprinted on their ways of moving. While a jagged, edgy form of contemporary dance provides the basis of the piece, it emerges slightly differently from each performer, even when they move as an ensemble. If there is any over-riding quality to their dance, it’s the vigour and earthiness that comes from communities where men do a lot of the most interesting dancing.

Choreographer Dalisa Pigram, director Rachael Swain and patron Patrick Dodson are credited with the concept, which was devised with the performers, and is performed by them with skill and passion.

It’s bookended by sequences that recall the TV news footage showing the hooded Aboriginal teenager detained in Don Dale. But the main thrust is the treatment of asylum seekers locked in Australia’s detention centres, including a Melbourne hotel and Nauru. Kurdish-Iranian writer and former Manus Island detainee Behrouz Boochani is one of the contributors to this recounting of the sad and continuing tragedy of inhumanity towards the inmates and amongst them.

Rape, madness and death are depressing representations, but there is a joyful central section that reflects happier lives. Individuals dance as they might have once at home, involving others as they celebrate their good memories.

This is where the most distinctive differences and similarities emerge. It was also, on opening night, when friends and colleagues in the audience whooped their recognition and delight, adding another dimension to the event.

We need the politicians to see this.