After two years of setbacks, Rising is finally reaching exhilarating heights with two powerful dance performances from Mette Ingvartsen and Marrugeku. By Alison Croggon.
Last week, on the coldest day of the year to date, I queued up outside the Sidney Myer Music Bowl and eyed with surprise a line of die-hard Melburnians in scarves and beanies. At 5pm it was already dark and the wind was arctic, but here was a bunch of families, some pushing prams, eager to get inside and experience The Wilds, an immersive psychedelic wonderland boasting surreal blow-up sculptures and projections, music and an ice-skating rink.
Third time lucky, I guess. After two years of Covid-19-related cancellations – including the Melbourne lockdown last year that nixed the festival on its opening night – Gideon Obarzanek and Hannah Fox’s Rising winter festival was finally happening – all 225 events of it.
Indoors in the warmth, the 2022 program is strong on dance. Mette Ingvartsen’s 21 Pornographies at the Meat Market, a powerful meld of dance, theatre and visceral politics, was a first-week highlight. Marrugeku’s Jurrungu Ngan-ga (Straight Talk) garnered a spontaneous standing ovation at Arts House on opening night and sold out about 20 minutes later. This work consolidates Marrugeku – an Indigenous-led, intercultural company based between Broome and Sydney – as Australia’s most exciting dance company: the last time I felt this exhilarated by dance was Hofesh Shechter’s Political Mother at the 2011 Melbourne Festival.
The biggest seduction – and frustration – of writing about dance is that it is impossible. The more compelling the work is, the more impossible it becomes. Live performance is ephemeral, mortal: writing about the burning present in the past tense often feels like conducting an autopsy of joy. And the most profound aspects of the experience – the reasons it is a performance rather than, say, a novel or a poem – are precisely those things that escape written language.
This dilemma feels especially sharp in thinking about both 21 Pornographies and Jurrungu Ngan-ga. Although they are very different – one a solo history of the fetishisation and exploitation of the erotic body, the other an ensemble work that examines the cruelty of racial politics in Australia – they have interesting resonances. Both are explorations of the sadism of power that interrogate how it seeps into everyday social experience. And both enact the ecstasy and pain of bodily experience.
Ingvartsen’s performance begins as she is seated among the audience, as she speaks a text rather like a meditation visualisation. Imagine, she says, a luxurious mansion populated by well-dressed, wealthy people: a president, a duke, a magistrate, some nameless women. She walks down to the stage and begins to describe an event of Sadean perversity.
Then – “cut!” – and she is describing the shooting of a film. The film seems to be a pornographic chocolate commercial. No, it is a film about war atrocities. No, it is some kind of musical or gentleman’s club. No, it is a war in a nameless city and bodies are being exhumed on a beach. She moves from fantasy to fantasy, calmly describing each scenario; sometimes she screams or shouts, but that is simply to express her characters. Meanwhile, she strips off her top and then the rest of her clothes, aside from her socks and an armband that holds her microphone. Her naked body is both neutral – the physical presence of the narrator – and the object that is debased and objectified in her narratives.
This performance possesses a peculiar alienation. Ingvartsen isn’t merely representing: she’s representing representations that are, all the same, grounded in the reality of our watching her naked body. In the middle of the performance is an ecstatic dance that expresses sexual freedom, but even that is rendered questionable, its freedom compromised, by the narratives that surround it.
I begin to think of the photographs of Abu Ghraib – how their ultimate obscenity was that the act of looking at them, even as witnesses, made us complicit in that person’s degradation and humiliation. But now we’re back at the mansion. Her character is dressed in a military uniform and seated to watch a passion play. This body has a black hood on its head and holds a white neon light that seems like a torture implement. It performs its debasement for us. Then it is whirling and whirling and whirling in the strobing light as the sound rises to a climax. It is a pure expression of agony. It feels that it will never stop whirling, that we are now, forever haunted by this torture.
Jurrungu Ngan-ga similarly disrupts linear time. It’s born out of a complex collaboration between Marrugeku, Aboriginal activist and Yawuru leader Patrick Dodson, author of No Friend But the Mountains Behrouz Boochani, his translator Omid Tofighian, and Flemish dramaturg and Les Ballets C de la B associate Hildegard de Vuyst.
According to the program notes, “Jurrungu Ngan-ga” is a Yawuru kinship concept that enables certain relatives “to communicate ‘straight’ or directly with one another”. In other words, the very idea of this show stems from an idea of family: that we – those of us watching and those of us on stage – are related to each other. Its power stems from a fierce demand that we all understand – that we all experience – our common interest and humanity.
Choreographed by Dalisa Pigram and directed by Rachael Swain, Jurrungu Ngan-ga is dance theatre that unflinchingly confronts some of the crimes that are committed in the name of the arbitrary national borders we call Australia. But it does so while asking us, implicitly and explicitly, about our complicity in those brutalities. It asks us how we – those of us who are white people – can endure that our privilege, wealth and comfort come at the price of unimaginable cruelty. It asks us, gently but straightly as fellow family members, how we can bear the brutalisation of our own souls. “When I hear the word ‘white’,” says white dancer Miranda Wheen, “I recoil just a little bit.”
Part of this work’s inspiration is Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, about an imagined utopic city in which its cultured citizens live in perfect prosperity and happiness. When a citizen is old enough, maybe about 12, they are taken to a dungeon and shown a child who is imprisoned in endless darkness and misery. If the child is freed, they are told, “in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms”.
In Abdul-Rahman Abdullah’s design, Australia – our Omelas – is represented by glittering chandeliers that descend from the flies. The citizens – depicted in some remarkable chorus work by the dancers, Czack (Ses) Bero, Emmanuel James Brown, Chandler Connell, Luke Currie-Richardson, Issa el Assaad, Macon Escobal Riley, Bhenji Ra, Fera Shaheen and Wheen – move diagonally across the stage in ambiguously threatening collective formations. They gesture robotically in alienated isolation or tiptoe across the stage in exhausted gestures taken from classical ballet. They speak – as in one comically neurotic movement piece from Ra – a truncated language, a speech broken and hollowed out by the necessity to deny the realities that underlie their citizenship.
The realities denied are confrontingly represented. We see a dancer (Connell) pacing the stage, confined by the rectangular projection of a surveillance camera, before he is assaulted and restrained in a chair like the Indigenous children in the Northern Territory’s Don Dale prison. We see a man stripped naked on stage and left face down, abject. We are told the names of the dead. We see the aggression that the state employs, physically and psychically, to keep its power intact, the price enacted on those deemed “other”, brown and Black bodies, female bodies, queer bodies.
Its dramaturgy is impeccable, orchestrating the contrasts between imagined possibility, the brutalised present and that which resists. In a series of exhilarating dance sequences, we see the joy, strength, beauty and – crucially – the humour that is made invisible by the denials of white Australia. And we understand that this delight is throttled in ourselves as long as we participate in those denials.
Jurrungu Ngan-ga finishes with Shaheen alone forestage, writhing in anguish as the chandeliers slowly lower around him. Finally he becomes still. Behind him, softly lit behind semi-opaque walls, the still, expressionless citizens witness his pain. As we do. As we all do.
Rising continues until June 12.
FESTIVAL Dark Mofo
Venues throughout Tasmania, June 8-22
CIRCUS Li’s Choice
Playhouse, Brisbane, until June 25
EXHIBITION Jaedon Shin: Double Moon
Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, until October 30
Arts Centre, Melbourne, June 17-25
EXHIBITION Rauschenberg & Johns: Significant Others
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, until October 30
Observatory Theatre, Brisbane, until June 11
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 11, 2022 as "Agony and ecstasy".
A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.