Repetitive cycles of alienation, frustration, sorrow, and humiliation in the face of political injustice over decades find powerful expression in Le Dernier Appel / The Last Cry, the latest interrogation by Marrugeku Dance Theatre of the deleterious effects of colonisation on the indigenous peoples of Australia and her neighbours. Commissioned by Carriageworks (Sydney), the Centre Culturel Tjibaou Nouméa, and Melbourne’s Arts House, Le Dernier Appel / The Last Cry appears as the Australian government refuses to act on constitutional reform for Indigenous people, and New Caledonia approaches a contentious referendum on independence from France (New Caledonia was colonised in the 1840s by Christian missionaries, and soon after by the French as a penal colony, and later for commercial enterprise.)
The production opens in an atmosphere of anxiety. Fidgety dancers attempt individualistic gestures then censor themselves, listening to a soprano lament, which swells and fills the air. Like the characters in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (a reference point for the artists), they seem to wait, make desultory gestures or conversations, their dances reflecting fear, boredom, or fixation on something invisible. Amrita Hepi, in black silk, makes a ritual of plain rectangular shapes and semaphoric waves, thoroughly focused, unruffled. Dalisa Pigram, in yellow overalls, moves like a silky seal in curvilinear repetitions, which, over time, flourish into a fury. Nervous, pale Miranda Wheen, in jeans, seems at first out of place, fair, young, powerless, but tenderly passionate. Each of their dances feels like a private ritual, a pacifier, some form of solace.
Liberated by new, stronger music, the dancers rephrase their rituals into grittier moods, sticky posturings, couplings, or accumulations. Young Krilin Nguyen stacks up hip hop rolls and head spins, cool and sanguine throughout; sitting still, he observes all around him as a growing reiteration of solos, danced singly or simultaneously, cross and circle the space. The ever-present anxiety leads to panic, rage, and even more bizarre states of mind. In one case, Yoan Ouchot, fine as a reed, often looking trapped in his head, or someone on hallucinogens, struggles to make a tight, neat ballet that might have come from Louis XIV’s court. Propelled by a burst of energy, Stanley Nalo whips his head of long dreadlocks into a frenzy as he rolls and rises like a porpoise, only to fling his body back to the floor then start all over again.
The sweet sound of Ngaiire singing her own songs calms the mood, and each dancer sinks into a quieter state, but it is one that cannot last. Promises made and broken, racist threats, reams of news clippings, edicts, and civil war images have already turned our attention to Nicolas Molé’s tall video screen. It opens benignly enough, with images of pale green leaves, but following the images of struggle and deception they turn crimson. Molé’s other set element, a wide, three-dimensional painting in grey, blue, black, and white, has been the show’s only constant element of grace, until, close to the end, it too turns red. Le Dernier Appel / The Last Cry, the actual last cry, emerges in a classical denouement. As both protagonist and chorus, the dancers gather upstage waiting for a sign. Swiftly, beneath the weight of massive, apocalyptic music, they rush as one across the space, their arms thrusting into golden light, racing to release their silent cry, leaving the audience in stunned silence before they can begin to applaud enthusiastically.
This new production has a long history. Twenty years ago, Marrugeku was invited to perform its first production, Mimi, at the opening of the Centre Culturel Tjibaou in Noumeá, New Caledonia. Designed by Renzo Piano, the centre was built to honour the memory of Kanak independence leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou and his ambitions for the cultural expression and emancipation of his indigenous people, Gens de la Terre.
Tjibaou was assassinated in 1988 by one of his own people, enraged that Tjibaou had agreed to an accord with the French government and New Caledonia’s Francophone political class, on a date for a referendum for independence. That date is 4 November 2018. Not unintentionally, Le Dernier Appel / The Last Cry will be performed during Centre Culturel Tjibaou’s twentieth-anniversary celebrations in September.
In true Marrugeku style, Le Dernier Appel / The Last Cry draws together creatives and dancers from countries colonised by the French or British. Director-choreographer Serge Aimé Coulibaly is from Burkina Faso; his co-choreographer and dancer, Dalisa Pigram, is a Yawuru/Badi woman from Broome. Amrita Hepi is a Bundjulung and Ngaphuhi (New Zealand) dancer–choreographer. Stanley Nalo (Ni-Vanuatan/Kanak/Papua New Guinean), Krilin Nguyen (of Vietnamese descent) and Yoan Ouchot (Kanak/Indonesian), all from New Caledonia, span hip hop, contemporary and neoclassical dance. Sydney dancer Miranda Wheen, like dramaturg Rachael Swain, lighting designer Matthew Marshall, costumier Mirabelle Wouters, and composers Nick Wales and Bree van Reyk, is Causcasian. Singer–songwriter Ngaiire is Papua New Guinean/Australian, and the designer, leading Kanak artist Nicolas Molé, is well known here for his work in the Asia Pacific Triennial at GOMA. Their collaborative efforts have delivered for Marrugeku a triumphant production. And not just for Marrugeku, unparalleled in Australia in its intercultural and trans-indigenous dance theatre-making, but also for the family of Jean-Marie Tjibaou, whose son Emmanuel and the Caledonian dancers presented the traditional elders and people of Sydney with gifts and a welcome to New Caledonia.