From maps of Country to ancient gods, Marrugeku’s showcase of new dance works, Burrbgaja Yalirra 2, allows its artists to explore the connections between ancestors and the present day. By Chantal Nguyen.

Burrbgaja Yalirra 2

Emmanuel James Brown dances in Burrbgaja Yalirra 2.
Emmanuel James Brown dances in Burrbgaja Yalirra 2.
Credit: Carlita Sari

Marrugeku means “clever men” in the Kunwinjku language of West Arnhem Land. It describes medicine men who could communicate with ancestors and the spirit world. Traditional landowners bestowed the name on the Marrugeku Indigenous dance company in the mid-1990s. Since then, Marrugeku has gone on to create intercultural projects reaching across Australia and Europe, and into the wider Asia-Pacific.

This season’s Burrbgaja Yalirra 2, which was at Sydney’s Carriageworks in April and tours to Perth in May, is one such project – a triple bill focusing on “trans-Indigenous and intercultural collaboration in contemporary dance”. It’s the second work to emerge from Marrugeku’s Burrbgaja Yalirra (Dancing Forwards) program, a three-year “intensive dance laboratory” designed to support “change-makers in contemporary, community-connected, intercultural and Indigenous dance”. Curated by artistic directors Dalisa Pigram and Rachael Swain, one of its focuses is to allow artists to explore the connection between their ancestors and their present-day identities.

As with many dance programs that aim to foster undiscovered talent, Burrbgaja Yalirra 2 is a bit hit-and-miss. This isn’t unusual: one example that springs to mind is Sydney Dance Company’s annual New Breed season for up-and-coming creators, which in the name of innovation has seen its fair share of the good, the bad and the ugly over the years. Creating opportunity and discovering the “hits” is so important to Australia’s dance landscape that, for the greater good, it’s often worth sitting through the “misses”. These programs are the dance world’s way of saying “take a crack at it”.

I found myself repeating this mantra as I sat through the first piece of the triple bill, No New Gods by Filipinx performance artist Bhenji Ra and Javanese-Australian choreographer Melanie Lane. The piece is a solo for Ra, set in a lunar eclipse as she summons the Bakunawa, a mythical Filipino dragon believed to cause eclipses, earthquakes, rain and wind.

The eclipse setting perhaps explains why the stage is so gloomily dark. As the dance develops into something resembling a B-grade horror film, I begin to think that the fact I can’t see clearly might not be such a bad thing. Ra moves across the stage towards the figure of a sacrificed buffalo, her movements drawing on Filipino stick-fighting. Clad in a furred tunic, her long hair flipping backwards and forwards, she utters guttural speech sounds and we hear the noise of flapping wings – presumably the Bakunawa arriving in response to her Babaylan shamanistic ritual.

The pacing and flow seem confused from the start and it’s unclear what the choreography or the stick-fighting is meant to tell us. Ra eventually stabs the buffalo and feasts on its flesh, accompanied by a cacophony of slurping and chewing noises. As she dramatically raises her blood-stained face from the carcass – crazy-eyed, wild-haired, her ravenous animal sounds rising to a crescendo – the overwhelming impression is of shock-jock theatrical tactics.

The feeling of watching a confusing horror film intensifies when Ra suddenly switches to a brief bout of poetry. Although it’s in English and intensely emotive and ambiguous, the poetry doesn’t clarify the story or develop a meaningful connection with the audience. Further horror film-style tactics follow, such as the lights blacking out as Ra loudly consumes the carcass and a projection of the stage floor flooded with torrents of blood-coloured liquid. The final diabolical climax involves Ra stabbing herself with her ceremonial sticks before the lights go out again, flashing back on to reveal that she has, predictably, transformed into the buffalo. This climax is drawn out – she impales herself not just once but three times, all in slow motion – and Ra’s screaming leaves you in no doubt about the hyper-agony of it all.

The opening of the second piece, Bloodlines, comes as a welcome relief, with two workmen (Ses Bero and Stan Nalo) carrying a portable radio and chatting happily as they set to work on a sugar cane plantation. Bloodlines covers complex historical junctures: the history of slavery and forced transportation in the South Sea Islands, the movements of Torres Strait Islanders between their home and the Australian mainland, and their meetings with Kanak and Ni-Vanuatuan workers on the sugar cane fields of Queensland.

The piece aims to explore how cultural memories haunt daily routines, with recurring themes of loss, mourning, recovery and disruption symbolised by the sound of a passing train. The dance contains intriguing visual symbols, such as long material tubers that abruptly fall to the ground or that the men hack down with machetes, which evoke tall sugar cane plants, jungle vines or ruptured links to ancestors and community. Bero and Nalo are warm and engaging performers and their dancing was particularly enjoyable once it got into a rhythmic flow. I only wish this flow wasn’t interrupted as much by some premature transfers to non-danced storytelling.

The final work, Nyuju – the most mature, intimate and moving of the three pieces – is by Emmanuel James Brown (known as EJB), with Marrugeku’s Pigram and Malay artist Zunnur Zharfirah as co-choreographers. It’s the story of EJB’s grandmother, the Wangkatjungka artist Nyuju Stumpy Brown. She was famously known as one of the last nomads to “walk out” of the Great Sandy Desert, and the piece makes wonderful use of her voice recordings as well as her artwork.

Her paintings, described as “maps of Country”, are animated by Sohan Ariel Hayes as quivering circles that open up on the stage floor, resembling pools of water that reflect a moving story or skylights revealing constellations of wheeling stars. EJB dances around these projections, drawing on a range of movement vocabulary from contemporary to traditional dance, interspersed with spoken-word stories and traditional song.

His experience as a storyteller – he also has a long career as an actor and cultural guide – really shines; you get the overwhelming sense his performance comes from a truly lived sense of memory, identity and place. One of the many ways this shows is in EJB’s particular manner of moving his feet, as if remembering the feel of being grounded on Country. It’s a skill particular to Indigenous dancers, and not one that can easily be faked.

Because EJB’s danced evocation of story is so strong, watching Nyuju is almost like seeing the outlines of Country begin to faintly materialise on the black, bare stage. It’s quite special that a solo performer can create such a vivid sense of time and place, and a huge contrast to the superficial theatricality of something like No New Gods.

Burrbgaja Yalirra 2 is at PICA, Perth, from May 17-2o.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 6, 2023 as "Forward into the past".

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