Dance Massive: Le Dernier Appel / The Last Cry

This most recent work from Marrugeku cements its place as one of Australia’s most exciting dance companies.

It begins with isolation, with six dancers standing on stage, each alone, each staring at the audience. Each body cocooned in stillness. It’s not relaxed: there is a kind of rigor mortis in their stances, an almost palpable feeling of life arrested.

Behind the six dancers — Amrita Hepi, Stanley Nalo, Krilin Nguyen, Yoan Ouchot, Dalisa Pigram and Miranda Wheen — is a screen that looks like a giant iPhone or iPad, which right now is showing a pattern of green leaves, like those generic wallpapers of the natural world that we gaze at nostalgically as the actual natural world burns around us. The back wall of Nicolas Molé’s set is an abstract pattern of angles, soft greys and browns.

The dancers begin to move, again in isolation. Tics, shudders, truncated movements. These are movements of trauma, of bodies that have been driven beyond expressions of wholeness to the broken remainders of gesture. Bodies and psyches picking up what is left and struggling towards expression.

Behind them, the screen is now running footage of news stories with a scrolling strapline of headlines: the vote of independence from France in New Caledonia, news on rejection of the Uluru Statement by Australian Parliament, news on Indigenous peoples fighting to protect their (our) environments. The movements grow, become more articulated; dancers begin to find moments of harmonisation with each other, moments of chorus work that scatter and break again. But always, always, this sense of inhibited movement, collapse, despair: traumatised isolation, irrevocable damage.

Le Dernier Appel/The Last Cry, the most recent work from Marrugeku, cements its place as one of Australia’s most exciting dance companies. The company itself is almost a model of decentering: it’s an Indigenous dance company based in Broome and Sydney, and has, as is seen in the dancers on stage, connections to Indigenous communities through the south-east Asian region. Marrugeku has an on-going relationship with Belgium’s les ballets c de la b, which under the direction of Alain Platel has become a platform for many dance artists, including Burkino Faso choreographer Serge Aimé Coulibaly, the director of Le Dernier Appel.

Each dancer comes from a different cultural background, from Australian Aboriginal to New Caledonian, from Kanak/Indonesian to European, and each has their own diction. Their costumes too are various, from Stanley Nalo’s checked shirt and jeans to Amrita Hepi’s black shimmering dress. The music, by Nick Wales, Bree Van Reyk and Ngaiire, is insistent, a sensual, driving score that incorporates electronica, percussive instruments, perhaps a didgeridoo, and most insistently, the human voice.

The influence of les ballets c de la b is evident in its use of neurotic, broken movement, an expressivity that more than almost any dance I’ve seen captures the anxiety of the present moment. And there are sequences of chorus work, especially towards the end when the entire company pulses together, swinging their heads up and down, stamping and whirling, their hair whipping around their faces, that strongly recall moments in Hofesh Schechter’s work. But this company has its own concerns, its own styles.

It’s clear from the beginning that we’re watching how the violence of colonisation writes itself into our bodies and psyches. As the work evolves, I’m struck by its balance: how the intelligence of the dance — co-choreographed by Coulibaly and Marrugeku co-artistic director Dalisa Pigram, with input from the dancers — keeps everything on a knife-edge of tension. It often seems as if it’s on the edge of tipping into incoherence, but never quite does: the sense of focus on this stage is superbly orchestrated.

The movement is dense, intricate and complex: the interrelationships between the dancers are at first subtextual, emerging in whirling moments of chorus work — two dancers, three dancers, four dancers — before spiralling off into individual choreographies. This is no simple transition from broken individuality to collectivity, because none of these pathways is simple.

It’s about frustration, anger, pain, lateral violence — at one point two dancers begin to fight and, in the only moments of silence during the dance, we hear their breathing, loud and harsh in the space. The movement ultimately expresses a defiant gathering of energy, a translation of trauma into collective strength, the last cry of its title. It’s exhilarating dance that lifted the hair on my neck, but it’s hard to say whether it’s optimistic or pessimistic. Neither, I’d say: perhaps the abiding sense it leaves you with is determination, a sense of something latent that is now activated.

All six are remarkable dancers. I often felt, because I was so engrossed in watching one of them, that I was missing others: it was almost impossible to comprehend the whole work in one viewing. But that, too, feels like an expression of the amplitude of the world in which we live, how difficult it is to grasp the complexities of contemporary existence, how urgent it is, nevertheless, that we attempt to reach past the broken idioms of pain and listen, each to the other.