‘We need more artists like Kelly to ask these complicated questions’: First Nations Emerging Critic Jacob Boehme on Karul Projects’ CO_EX-EN
CO_EX_EN is the latest offering from emerging choreographer Thomas E S Kelly, under the banner of Karul Projects. A fledging performing arts company founded by Kelly in 2017, Karul Projects tells new stories of Indigenous knowledge, led by new Indigenous voices. A graduate of NAISDA College of Dance in 2012, Kelly is a Bundjalung lad from New South Wales with an impressive list of accomplishments and credits under his belt as a young emerging voice in contemporary dance.
The source material for Kelly’s latest work comes from historical and living memories of events that took place on his traditional Bundjalung homelands. In the 1950s, the Tweed Shire Council met intense resistance and petitioning, led by local Elder Aunty Margaret Kay, against plans to build a shopping centre on a historic Bundjalung ceremonial site. The gathering place was a site for ceremony, where the wall between the physical and spiritual worlds is at its thinnest. It was where ancestral knowledge was passed from generation to generation through lore and songlines.
In 1961 the Council granted the local Indigenous community guardianship over the site and its surrounding 125 hectares for preservation. Since then, the local Indigenous community have built a museum and fenced in the ceremonial site where the last known gathering of family groups and ceremony is thought to have occurred in the early 1900s.
The proposition for his latest work is simple, and confronting. Kelly asks: “How are we a living culture if we aren’t living our culture?” CO_EX_EN presents a clean and uncomplicated theatrical response from the choreographer. Kelly’s message is clear, even, at times, didactic.
A light installation hangs from the ceiling on one side of the stage (Cheryl Frost). Several strands of LED light form the shape of a circle in the negative space underneath. We learn very early on that this is sacred ground. On the opposite side of the stage another circle of light is used in later sequences to define the space in opposition to the sacred and ceremonial. The “other” circle holds the movement of the dispossessed and those who have lost, forgotten or do not practice their culture.
The dancers (Taree Sansbury, Amalie Obitz, Neville Williams Boney, Nadia Martich and Kelly) emerge from the dark, two steps forward, one step back. They slowly creep further and further forward into beams of yellow side light. One by one they are seduced to the bowl of white ochre resting upstage. They each mark their bodies with ochre: one across the mouth, another down an arm; another wrings their hands in the ochre. This is the first of several references to a proud dance lineage, descendant of NAISDA Dance College and Bangarra.
A remarkably evocative sound design (Alyx Dennison) accompanies a series of vignettes that play out the destruction of a people, its culture and the ramifications of losing oneself to modernity. The work’s strength lies in its references to traditional dance. Kelly employs the use of repetition effectively, as a contemporary compositional and traditional dance tool. It’s particularly successful in the work’s opening sequences, setting up the world and the problem the work seeks to answer.
The narrative unfolds as the movement progresses. The ensemble removes the ochre from their bodies, signalling a growing distance from culture, ritual and tradition. The use of force, violence and self-harm is interwoven with traditional dance to further progress the narrative, as well as disrupt the form.
There is further disruption in the piece, when Kelly addresses the audience. The dancers have removed their paint. They start to shake and tremble. The trembling quickly turns into writhing and they scramble to find each other. Kelly stands underneath the light installation, on ceremonial ground. Culture and ceremony have been given a human voice and tonight it speaks through him. Kelly tells the audience of a time when everyone knew him, when everyone came and they danced together at this gathering place. He tells us how people have forgotten him and they no longer come, they no longer dance here. He gives us the name for this ceremony and encourages us to participate in a call and response. We sing out the word, over and over. One last time, we call the word out three times in succession, Kelly claps and the dancers continue.
As an emerging choreographer, Kelly is definitely developing a signature style, fusing traditional dance forms with contemporary expressions and formations. Some of the ensemble work is reminiscent of iconic Bangarra shows Ochres and Fish, and it will be interesting to follow where Kelly takes the development and disruption of the form as his practice matures.
The set-up of the world’s “traditional dance”, and its accompanying sound track, are sublime. CO_EX_EN borrows dance styles from across Australia. Herein lies the excitement and anticipation for what is to come from Kelly. It also unleashes a myriad of questions about Indigenous cultural intellectual property.
One can see in the choreography movements that come from specific country: footwork that belongs to Yolgnu country, female shake-a-leg witnessed in Cape York, hand and arm gestures reflective of the Morning Star dance from Mornington Island. These are the dances aspiring choreographers are taught at NASIDA. They are given permissions, within specific contexts, to reference and to use them. It’s unclear to what degree permissions have been sought for this material. But just as questions around IP surface, so too do questions around the artist’s freedom, their right to expression, revolt and evolution.
In CO_EX_EN the problem and potential solution are simple: without our ceremonial practices, we as Aboriginal people are lost and in a state of torment. We can only be truly content if we return to practising our dances and our ceremonies.
If only it were as simple as that. There are nuances and complexities reflective of the broader Aboriginal population and Australian political paradigm that are missing here. One could argue that the root of the problem lies in one truth: that we are a product of colonisation. From this truth springs countless issues.
It’s complicated, and in finding answers we are sometimes presented with contradictions. The work itself presents a contradiction, in that it asks us to consider how we can be a living culture, if we don’t practice our culture, told through the identifiably borrowed and abstracted movements of several language groups across Australia in the context of a story located on Bundjalung country, northern NSW. This too presents us with complications that require further conversation and healthy debate, free of the violence which has seen our peoples removed from cultural practices and traditions.
We need more artists like Kelly to ask these complicated questions and explore their contradictions. I sincerely hope Kelly chooses to continue down this path of interrogation in his future works. CO_EX_EN offers audiences the chance to engage in a deeper conversation, for those brave enough to have one.
CO_EX-EN, choreographed by Thomas E.S. Kelly. Composition by Alyx Dennison, cello played by Freya Schack-Arnott, lighting design by Cheryn Frost, dramaturgy by Vicki Van Hout, community consultants, Ngajin Magpie, Amarlee Kelly. Performed by Thomas E.S. Kelly, Taree Sansbury, Amalie Obitz, Neville Williams Boney, Nadia Martich. CO_EX_EN presented by Arts House for Dance Massive. Closed.