There’s no getting around the fact that climate change is the issue of our time. It’s a problem that encompasses every facet of our lives, from our domestic habits to global politics. One of the reasons why it’s difficult to process, quite apart from the difficulty of extending our individual senses of mortality to imagining our extinction as a species, is its complexity.
Everything that climate change touches is complex: the science, the politics, the economics, the contradictory collective and individual responses of human beings. Addressing the challenges and uncertainties of climate change in a work of art demands a concomitant complexity. Not to mention a great deal of ambition.
So all respect to Broome-based dance company Marrugeku, which tackles climate change head on in its most recent work Cut The Sky, which premiered at this year’s Perth Festival. Cut The Sky frames its argument through an Indigenous perspective, articulated through the poems of Edwin Lee Mulligan and its focus on the 1979 Noonkanbah protests, when the US company AMAX, escorted by hundreds of police, forced its way through Yungngora community pickets to drill for oil on sacred land.
As I walked out, I thought I had seen nothing like it; but it’s difficult to describe precisely why this is so. Cross-disciplinary collaborations are common in theatre, and it’s not remarkable that dance, video, poetry and song should all collide in a single work.
Cut The Sky is, like climate change itself, at once unapologetically local and international, a concept is embedded in the collaboration itself. The creative team stretches to Belgium, with associates of Belgium’s Les Ballet C de la B as core creators. As well as Marrugeku’s Rachel Swain (concept and direction) and Dalisa Pigram (concept and choreography), there is choreography from Serge Aimé Coulibaly and dramaturgy (Hildegard de Vuyst). The influence of Les Ballet C de la B is clear in the vocabulary of the dance, a theme of neurotic, broken movement that expresses human and environmental damage.
There are original songs from soul singer Ngaiire and Indigenous songs as well as covers from Nick Cave and Buffalo Springfield, sung live with thrilling effect by Ngaire Pigram in a poison green corset. The video design encompasses the literal – broad sweeps of country, the devastation after a cyclone – and the poetic. There is the speaking of poems, direct and honest recitations from Edwin Lee Mulligan that weave traditional knowledge with contemporary anxieties. And, of course, there’s superb dance.
All these elements – popular and high art, literal and poetic, Indigenous and European – are jammed together into a breathtaking 70 minutes, each at once clashing against the others and creating electric connections. The transition from one mode of performance to the next is often jarring, even deliberately crude, but it’s always exciting. If it’s true, as Peter Brook said, that theatre is about contrast, then this show is as theatrical as it gets.
It’s performed on a set by Stephen Curtis which gives the sense, like the workaday costumes, of being put together from materials to hand. The set is bare aside from a gas pipeline thrusting up from the floor of the stage. Backstage is hung a huge length of fabric, its folds visible, which serves as a screen for projections.
The dance moves through five acts, beginning, like The Tempest, in the middle of a storm. It moves back and forward in time, touching on conflict with mining companies, the destruction of fauna and abnegation of the marginalised, the perfidy of a state that demands that its subjects trust it, while at the same time betraying them.
The intellectual frame is provided by Indigenous mythmaking that warns of the terrifying ambiguity of the natural world, which both gives and destroys. It leads to an astonishing finale that evokes both catastrophe and plenty. I was surprised at the end when only six cast members took their bows: they had so filled the stage with their presences that it seemed there must be more. Exhilarating and original work.