This evening’s events all took place at the small stage near the cafe. Very atmospheric. Rachael even had some chimes being played on repeat, to set the mood.*

And what a mood it was. 
Rachael: In my country the tradition now would be to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land, and also your own ancestors.
One of her titles is Co-Artistic Director of Marrugeku, an intercultural indigenous dance company in Broome, Australia. So, bearing in mind that our mixed group might not know much about her country, she gave us seven dot-points for Australian history from an indigenous point of view.

We needed it. I mean, we’ve all heard about the Dreamtime and massacres and the Stolen Generation. But did we know how it was only in 1967 that the Australian government decided – by referendum – whether aboriginals were citizens, i.e. people? Before that they were classified with the flora and fauna. Plus, it was only in 1992 that Eddie Mabo’s lawsuit overturned the ruling that pre-colonial Australia had been terra nullis – resulting in the decision that if you can prove you’ve cultural ownership of the land, then you can have legal ownership too.

All this has profound implications for her work. It means that she’s working in communities whose heritage has basically been decimated, so they have to hold on fast to what traditions they have left. Plus - and Rachael says this is just her view - the legal requirements of the Native Title have put the elders in a really tough position regarding contemporary art, given the requirements of proving continuous connection to traditional practices.
KS: How did you, in the early stages, get your friends to trust you as a white woman, in an area where there’s a lot of suspicion?

Rachael: It’s a big question.  Marrugekku is an intercultural company, made for people from different cultures to work together, and part of the answer is the work is very very collaborative. I happen to be the director but there’s a lot of input from a lot of my colleagues.
The other part involves how the fact that they were an outdoor theatre company. In fact, it was an indigenous choreographer who advised them in 1995 to collaborate with the Kunwinjku people of Arnhem Land, simply because they recognized that their form on stilts was similar to that of their mimih spirit characters
Rachael: All our work is outdoors. Where we work there are no theatres. There are no lights, there are no rehearsal spaces. We usually work thousands of kilometres from a city. I wanted to say this here, because here (motions to small stage area), with a roof and no walls, is quite normal for us. 
They spent the years from 1997 to 2000 working on The Orphan or Crying Baby, an adaptation of a Dreamtime story of a little boy abandoned by two tribes that should be looking after him, wailing for tucker in the wilderness. The Rainbow Serpent is enraged, so she turns both the tribes into rock: still visible today.

She showed us clips from the show: an awesome outdoor experience in the darkness: masks and stilts and headdresses and video projections and aerial suspension, recalling Dreamtime; the colonization of Rev James Watson, first Christian missionary in West Arnhem Land; and of course the removal of children from their families.

Then Rachael showed us something completely different, made after the company moved to Broome in 2003: a land where the red desert meets the turquoise sea, where Aboriginal history is mixed up the story of Asian immigration even in the very genes of its people: the pearling industry was too important for the White Australia Policy to be enforced here, so Chinese and Japanese and Filipinos came in and intermarried with the whites and the Yawuru.
Rachael: This meant that indigenous identity in Broome was a multiethnic identity. It required us to create a completely different dance language to represent the community in Broome.
The dancers engaged with cultural custodians: elders of the Japanese communities as important as those of the indigenous: learning taichi as well as sacred Yawuru dance moves (which they had to learn in the desert: to do so in the city would be taboo).

The end product Rachael showed us was a riot of a production, celebrating and mourning the city’s intercultural history, inspired by the description of its early pub scene as an “Asian Wild West”. So there were brawls breaking out outside a karaoke club with Yawuru men in cowboy hats and Japanese women in saris, live subtitled singalong music videos sung by native boys about the heartbreak of miscegenation laws, all presided over by a Burmese-Australian rapper. One night only, in the open-air streets of Broome.
Rachael described other works. Buru, an intergenerational knowledge transmission project: Dreamtime stories performed by 10 children from Broome as an effort by the elders to pass this knowledge forward. It’s toured regions of Kimberley, as well as indigenous communities in Canada and the USA.

Also Gudirr-Gudirr, an upcoming solo by the other co-artistic director, Dalisa Pigram, focusing on the legacy of the government’s racial policies on younger people in Kimberley, who happen have the world’s highest regional rate of youth suicide. The title comes from the name of a shorebird that calls to warn you the tide is changing. An elder told them, it described Marrugeku’s work: “It’s like what you’re saying to community: if you don’t move, if you don’t change, you will drown.”

And of course, all this parallels what’s happening right here, with the war with the Kachins, and now again with the Rohingyas: communities who may take generations upon generations to overcome their wounds of history, even if peace someday comes. How do you make it right? How do you make it right?

P.S. Rachael's corrected me on some details and phrasing. Amendments made - thanks!

* Those chimes on repeat? Seems that was just Brett's cellphone alarm going off. (rolls eyes)


Leave a Reply