How can we look to the past to change the future?
That’s a question that Marrugeku’s triple bill, “Burrbgaja Yalirra” (Dancing Forwards) seems to be asking. All three of the short, solo dance theatre works programmed refer to stories of the past; stories of contact between humans and spirits, between Aboriginal people and invaders. As the title suggests, however, the gaze of the program is firmly forwards, learning from what has been and looking at what is to come.
Broome/Sydney based dance theatre company Marrugeku has a tradition of collaboration on numerous levels, bringing together Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, contemporary and traditional dance, urban and remote dance communities, and various artistic disciplines. “Burrbgaja Yalirra” is no exception and the program includes an intricate web of creative co-credits, headed up by the company’s co-directors Dalisa Pigram (seen in the critically-acclaimed Gudirr Gudirr at the Studio Underground back in 2015) and Rachael Swain.
All three works share one set, a series of three concrete flats, designed by Stephen Curtis. Simple but effective, the industrial-looking slabs are softened by cracks that bring to mind meandering creek beds. Those flats leap into life, seething with colour, in the first work on the program, Ngarlimbah. Conceived, written and performed by Kimberley-based Aboriginal dancer, poet and painter Edwin Lee Mulligan and co-directed by Pigram and Swain, the work is a rich tapestry of dance, paintings, text and music. Mulligan’s paintings, animated by Sohan Ariel Hayes, depict traditional stories and Mulligan’s own dreams. In combination with his poetic narration and deft movement, and layers of music by Sam Serruys and Dazastah, the images plunge us into a Dreamtime and dream-like world.
Like Ngarlimbah, Miranda, conceived and performed by Miranda Wheen and co-choreographed by Wheen and Belgian-based dancer/choreographer Serge Aimé Coulibaly, draws on both personal and shared stories, including that of Wheen’s namesake character in Picnic at Hanging Rock. It then takes a somewhat tangential turn (although the logic is explained in the notes) to explore the challenge that white Australia faces in moving forward from its past.
While Miranda feels somewhat disjointed because of the tenuous links between its key concepts, Wheen’s performance is highly engaging; intense, charismatic and precise. Now she struggles, arms and legs akimbo, like a rock climber. Now she moves robotically, popping and locking her way across the stage. Now she bourees, a balletic ghost. Now she shouts at us with increasing hysteria, to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land. Now she gestures obscenely, her face comically grotesque. Throughout, Matthew Cox’s lighting casts appropriately spooky beams and shadows, while Sam Serruys’s composition builds and diminishes tension.
The final work on the bill, Dancing with Strangers, was also the longest, and my favourite. Conceived, written and performed by Aboriginal dancer and musician Eric Avery, directed and co-choreographed by Avery with Belgian choreographer Koen Augustijnen and co-composed by Avery with Serruys, Dancing with Strangers has at its centre the story of Avery’s great, great, great, great grandfather seeing the first fleet as it sailed past Yuin country on the south coast of NSW. Avery’s description of the “whales ridden by white ghosts”, initially mistaken as “returned ancestors” is gut-wrenching.
Like the previous works, Dancing with Strangers deftly weaves together dance, theatre and music, with the added layer of Avery’s live violin. There is something dancerly in the movement of any musician playing an instrument, but Avery transforms the violin and bow into instruments of dance in their own right; the bow whipping, the violin twisting. A swift and powerful mover, Avery is a joy to watch.
While Dancing with Strangers explores the impacts of colonisation on Aboriginal people, its final message is not one of damnation but of hope; its spoken word finish talks about what could have been but also what might still be.
“Burrbgaja Yalirra” is a moving and uplifting triple bill.