How Rising festival brought us dance in times of plague

Three years in the making, Rising’s much-anticipated first edition brought to Melbourne’s festival-deprived audiences a rich program featuring 225 events.
With former Chunky Move founder and choreographer Gideon Obarzanek as co-director, it was only natural to expect a dance-heavy presence with eight local and international productions.
The works ranged from incredible local performer Jo Lloyd and her dancers in dialogue with drummer Jim White and guitarist Emmett Kelly, to the exquisite Indonesian dancer and choreographer Rianto’s ritualistic Hijra’h, but there were three works which I felt particularly captured something of this post-pandemic age.

Jurrungu Ngan-ga/Straight Talk

Marrugeku’s productions have often been straight talk – powerful invitations to reflect on the devastating effects of ongoing colonialism as experienced daily by Indigenous people and other marginalised communities.
Their works are almost always the result of intercultural collaborations, expressed through complex choreography expanding into spoken text, multimedia installations and diverse styles of dance.
This production is no different, inspired by ideas and experience contributed as material by choreographer Dalisa Pigram’s own grandfather Yawuru leader and senator Patrick Dodson, Kurdish Iranian writer and former Manus Island detainee Behrouz Boochani and Iranian-Australian scholar-activist Omid Tofighian.
Jurrungu Ngan-ga tackles the devastating consequences of Australia’s entrenched, government-sanctioned fixation with punishment through detention and incarceration.
The show brings together a cast of nine dancers of multiple backgrounds (from First Peoples, refugee, transgender and settler communities) who also contribute their embodied stories and histories to the piece.
It starts with a subtly exquisite solo, the dancer embracing the space with ample movement flowing freely. As it unfolds, movement becomes cagier, as if restrained, constrained by invisible barriers. It prefaces the next solo, a man pacing in a cell of light watched by a camera. He is in turn surveying by us watching the camera footage.
This is a man caged in a prison, caged in a body, and the movement – no longer ample – pulsates with repressed anger.
From here, the choreography grows into dizzying ensemble moments, including a surreal moment when the dancers navigate their way through a stage occupied by glowing crystal chandeliers lowered to the ground.
There is everything in this piece, from police abuse to spit-hoods to video surveillance, to naked bodies dumped on the floor with a muffled thump, to names of those who have perished in police custody or in detention. There is abuse and humiliation and moments of protest, of fury, and joy, wild and unapologetic.
The choreography is a breathtaking tour de force delivered by fierce bodies telling their dire stories. Although nothing is accusatory here, there is no breathing space for the audiences but to take it all in. As the final solo arrives, soothing and somewhat majestic, ears still resonate with the powerful rapping “this is Australia”.
This is Australia at its ugliest, in its fear of everything not from here, of everyone “not like us”, a mirror talking back at us.
Jurrungu Ngan-ga is truly a piece of its plagued times, viscerally sharp and brutally raw, so raw that it cuts to the bone, and the call to action at the end may well be the only way to catch the breath.