Burrbgaja Yalirra (Dancing Forwards) is a group of three solo performance works from cross-cultural theatre company Marrugeku. The program consists of Ngarlimbah by Edwin Lee Mulligan and Sohan Aerial Hayes, Miranda by Miranda Wheen, and concludes with Eric Avery’s Dancing with Strangers. All explore relationships with land and country in the wake of white settlement. Mulligan and Avery draw on elements of Australian Indigenous dance, while Wheen draws on and critiques elements of European dance.
Mulligan opens with a work of gentle story-telling. The performance is supported by richly coloured video projection, producing a sympathetic, magical, and dreamy effect. Mulligan relates a set of interpenetrating Dreaming stories which link ochre in the landscape, to the dingoes and their blood, the dogs with a major watercourse, the lilies found in this lake, and the sun which rises out of the lilies’ blossoms.
Mulligan’s movement is low and grounded, often curving through a wide legged stance and bent knees. The principal characteristics of his dance however are those of simplicity and relaxation. He practically pours through his movements, between standing at ease, or gently speaking his text into the radio microphone he wears. When the sun rises out of the lilies behind him, placing his people in the sky, the work itself blossoms. Hayes here takes the Magic Realist ambience of his previous animations like Cannibal Story (2012) to new heights, the tableaux behind Mulligan practically dripping colour.
Miranda by contrast is all edgy, nervous embodiment and screaming speech. The first section is designed to evoke the initially unpublished, last chapter of Joan Lindsay’s novel Picnic at Hanging Rock, in which the titular schoolgirl Miranda falls into a “hole in space.” This is cut-off by Wheen dropping out of character and launching into a lengthy impassioned proclamation of sorrow and guilt for the acts of her white ancestors. Wheen then criss-crosses the space, crushing her body in on itself, with shoulders hunched, hips forward and arms circling about the hollow in front of her, before suddenly snapping backwards and flinging herself about. Facial grimaces supplement this explosion of unresolved discontent. The choreography here recalls Martin del Amo’s performance of bodily chaos, and Del Amo did indeed choreograph Wheen in 2012 (Quest).
I am not sure myself that Miranda coheres as an artistic whole. We sit with the lengthy broken ballet prelude too long for this portion to function as but one part amongst a violently disorganised whole, while the links between the two sections seem under-developed. It is nevertheless an arresting work, the combination of urgently spoken text and nervous twitching creating a curious yet grating effect.
The concluding performance by Eric Avery is, to my mind, the stand out in the program. The piece is named after Inga Clendinnen’s famous history text in which she explains that some of the earliest interactions between Europeans and the first Australians took the form of friendly improvised dances, in which each party would try to share and teach the other some of their movement and songs.
Avery, who plays violin at various points, composed the score, which recalls the work of Michael Nyman for filmmaker Peter Greenaway. Recognisably European Baroque and Classical motifs are taken and repeated, to give both a sense of the historical (the late 18th and early 19th centuries) and the present. Like Clendinnen, Avery explores a moment caught between historical outcomes, a time when things could have turned out differently.
Avery is attired in an animal-hide tailcoat, which he later inverts to dress as a British officer, or as one of the famous Eora like Bungaree, who adopted European naval gear as a sign of their roles as cultural intermediaries. Dancing with Strangers is in this sense best described as a burlesque, or disrespectful re-performance, of colonial tropes.
Avery’s movement is also impressive, blending elements of Indigenous dance (positions from kangaroo and emu dances appear) with those of contemporary Euro-American dance, Asian martial arts (Avery adopts a fighting stance, one foot forward whilst posed on the back foot, and arms raised ready to swirl into the space before him), and other elements (he scythes the air with his bow, creating wonderful wind cracks). Avery frequently returns to a microphone stand, which he flings around stage and through which he offers commentary by turns ironic, comedic and angry.
The strength of Avery’s performance is its endless ramshackle inventiveness. With little on stage, Avery insistently animates every element in multiple ways. The stage here becomes a space wherein one can create brief utopian possibilities and new futures out of the smallest of gestures and objects, so long as one returns to them and reworks them intensively. Dancing with Strangers is in this sense the opposite of Ngarlimbah. Dancing with Strangers recalls early rough-and-ready ventures in Indigenous theatre like the National Black Theatre of the 1970s, while Ngarlimbah is a gorgeously ornate offering, exuding a sense of peaceful sophistication. As an overall program, Burrbgaja Yalirra offers an impressive snapshot of alternatives to how to speak for the lands we have now been forced to share.
Marrugeku’s Burrbgaja Yalirra (Dancing Forwards) is at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts June 8 – 16
Burrbgaja Yalirra (Marrugeku)