EverNow is a new Perth event of dance and song that celebrates kambarang, the Noongar season of birth and renewal. By Victoria Laurie.
In a reversal of nearly two centuries, the lawns of the Supreme Court Gardens in Perth have been transformed back into a ceremonial campground, or Keelap: a Noongar meeting place where the Swan River once lapped at its swampy edges.
The reedy, food-rich swamps have long since been filled in, hard edges added to a rerouted river many metres away. “The river used to come right up here,” says Noongar Elder Dr Richard Walley. “When early settlement came, they didn’t take much notice of the culture or the stories, they just saw land and opportunity so they built on the high places … Four lots of great grandmothers are buried around here.”
We are at EverNow, a festival celebrating kambarang, the spring season of birth, renewal and native wildflowers in the Noongar six-season calendar. It is a new festival in an ancient place, a long overdue effort by Tourism Western Australia to properly engage with cultural traditions dating back more than 60,000 years.
Perth Festival was commissioned to shape EverNow into a spring precursor to the festival’s official summer fare of local and international acts. EverNow is more intimate, drawing directly on the plethora of Aboriginal performers, singers, writers and designers who have emerged in recent years, and an older generation of Perth’s cultural leaders, such as Walley. There was a slightly off-key moment when EverNow was launched by state Labor minister John Carey as “part of a broader tourism strategy”. The mentality dies hard in the west that the arts, and its Aboriginal manifestations, are a kind of cultural window dressing for a prosperous resource state.
Back to the grassy campground, where family groups and camera-toting tourists settled on the lawns in the late afternoon light. Like the picnic fare, EverNow had several offerings over six nights – Keelap, Song Circle and a lights spectacle further up the hill titled Boorna Waanginy: The Trees Speak.
The first course was spread out on the Keelap campground, an ornate fire story in which seed pods, banksia flowers and grass tree fronds were embedded in a golden sand bed like exquisitely set jewels. The living carpet was intended as a talking point, as creators Mitchella “Waljin” Hutchins and Elaine Clocherty described how every plant was a local species whose life cycle relied on fire sacrifice.
Hutchins also installed a few plant “carpets” next door in the Government House grounds, in a collaboration with Compagnie Carabosse from France. Carabosse’s Fire Gardens is a showy counterpoint to the subtle Noongar fire story, with large crowds moving past and around giant rotating spheres and ornate metal racks laden with flaming pot candles. As the breeze catches the tongues of red-orange flame, they flow over the rim like a riot of fast-growing flowers. Their Antipodean display was a heart-stopping sight from a distance, resembling thousands of spot fires smouldering after a catastrophic blaze through Perth’s oldest colonial garden.
As the shadows cast by the canyon of CBD towers faded into night, another element of EverNow unfolded as a highly orchestrated corroboree. It was performed by singers and instrumentalists on a small rotating stage, around which was a built-up sand bed where a dozen dancers stomped and sang. In every sense, Song Circle was grounded in its place, each Noongar song a tribute to an animal, bird or the groundwater, “an invisible kiss of life beneath our feet” that lay beneath the manicured Supreme Court Garden lawns.
There was a dragonfly song, Woordawoort, in which the dancers darted to and fro, and the Yornan bobtail lizard story of males comically chasing a female mate. Midjal celebrated the seasonal rains, in lyrics described as “painting the bark as the peppermint trees chatter”. Songs about stingrays, dolphins and bull sharks followed, with a final ode to Boodjar, the land.
The 15-minute Song Circle was repeated every half hour late into the evening. Last notes lingered like catchy lullabies, simple songs that seemed perfect for every child to learn. Sporting two large head feathers, vocalist and electric guitarist Dr Clint Bracknell was accompanied by percussionists and two vocalists. Bracknell is also Song Circle’s composer, a Wirlomin Noongar music professor and Australian Research Council grant recipient who has led a movement to reclaim Noongar song traditions that are as endangered as the state’s native mammals.
The resurgence of Noongar culture in almost all art forms owes much to Bracknell and his accomplished partner, Kylie Bracknell, an actor-director-linguist who also performed in Song Circle. For the 2020 Perth Festival, she directed and translated Shakespeare’s Macbeth into Noongar, in a world-first production she retitled Hecate after one of Shakespeare’s often overlooked characters. Poignantly, it required some of the all-Indigenous cast to relearn a language their Stolen Generation relatives had been forbidden to speak.
EverNow’s other Noongar offering, Boorna Waanginy: The Trees Speak, necessitated a walk or short bus ride up St Georges Terrace towards one of the largest bushland parks of any capital city in the world, Kings Park. Boorna Waanginy is an immersive night-time stroll through a 1.5 kilometre stretch of Kings Park, starting out down a grand avenue of eucalypts that line the park entrance. Images are beamed from powerful 3D projectors onto leafy canopy, tree trunks and across open lawns as the park landscape becomes the canvas for storytelling.
Ducks pursue fish through ancient wetlands, blue-banded bees swarm and smartly striped numbats – the state’s rare faunal emblem – dart between the trees. A trapdoor spider web snares the mesmerised crowd in a stunning tribute to Kings Park’s spider dreaming that is accompanied by the haunting chant of custodian Barry McGuire. Further on, the thunderous soundtrack is more didactic, with commentary about land clearing and species extinction that is illustrated by lit specimen jars hung in trees.
“Boorna Waanginy is about nature speaking to us, from a long process of evolution,” says Walley, who worked with teams of video and acoustic designers and director Nigel Jamieson on Boorna Waanginy’s first iteration for the 2017 Perth Festival and this EverNow revival. He is unapologetic about the more urgent tone injected into the latest soundtrack.
“These trees, the animals, the shapes of the hills have taken a long time to develop but things can disappear quickly. No one can ignore it – the weather patterns are telling us things are changing rapidly, our driest months, our wettest days, our hottest times. It’s one of the big messages of Boorna Waanginy – we are the caretakers.”
EverNow, to run again in 2024, prompts questions about the contradictory nature of Western Australia. It was a crowd-pleasing invitation to a corroboree, light spectacle and fire ritual, a deliberately simple format for people to sit together and enjoy the fruits of a resurgent Noongar culture. Yet it was occurring in a state predicted to return a resounding “No” referendum vote. And Boorna Waanginy’s booming message of environmental crisis was delivered in a city almost totally dependent on fossil fuel and resource extraction.
Walley refuses to be disillusioned. He’s encouraged by the new generation of Noongar-speaking artists and performers whom EverNow celebrates. “Anything we do in the arts is communication; it’s non-threatening and you can absorb the message. We’re respecting your intelligence and giving you an informed presentation.
“Boorna Waanginy is nature having a voice, saying, ‘If you want to know about nature, you have to engage with it.’ Similarly, if you want to know about what Aboriginal people think, you have to engage with Aboriginal people.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 14, 2023 as "Friendly fire".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription