DubaiKungaMiyalk’s Same but Different foregrounds the vast range of contemporary Indigenous dance, says First Nations Emerging Critic Jacob Boehme
As a form, Indigenous contemporary dance is relatively young. Sadly, the last four decades of Indigenous contribution to contemporary dance is scantily documented and largely unknown outside of Blackfella circles.
Its beginnings were humble. A six-week course fusing traditional Aboriginal and western contemporary dance techniques in the early 1970s led to the birth of the Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre soon afterwards, and was followed by the founding of the NAISDA College of Dance, which produced the flagship major performing arts company Bangarra. For such a short history, its diversity of expression is vast.
Same but Different, curated by DubaiKungaMiyalk artistic director Mariaa Randall, a Bunjalung/Yaegel woman, brings together four First Nations female choreographers from different Country across Australia, to tell stories through dance and to “challenge any notion that all Indigenous dance is the same”.
DubaiKungaMilyalk means “woman” in three distinct Indigenous languages from New South Wales and the Northern Territory. The company’s mandate is to foreground the Indigenous female perspective, making work with, by and about First Nations women.
The ensemble (Mariaa Randall, Henrietta Baird, Carly Shepard and Ngioka Bunda-Heath) has taken over The Stables out the back of the Meat Market. They have been given space and a couple of weeks’ development time to create and present possibilities for the future of Indigenous contemporary dance. The works are a testimonial to the diversity of contemporary dance lineages and a chance for others “to share in a conversation they’ve been yarning about for years”.
The atmosphere is relaxed: the audience is assembled and greeted casually by the performers. Randall welcomes us into the space and sets up protocols to be observed for the evening, allowing Elders and people with special needs to travel first as we move through The Stables.
The women “do” ceremony. It is not performed. It is an honouring of ancient tradition, calling up spirit, singing their names, kicking up dust. Tonight, this ancient ritual is made on a concrete floor in track pants. They call in Country and bloodlines. We see the words projected behind them. The women pay homage to the lands they are performing on. They call Boon Wurrung, Wurundjeri. Tonight’s ceremony is as reverential as it is casual, much like inma, bonggol, gurribunggudja or corroborree happens out bush. It is at once an acknowledgement of tradition and a statement of the urban Indigenous contemporary context. Having called in spirit and acknowledged country, the women exit the space with purpose.
In the corner of the room, projections of the women appear on the walls in the videography installation Through sKIN we breathe (Jody Haines). Rivers and waterways are superimposed over the women’s faces, shoulders, backs and necks. Their images in the landscape further reiterate the diversity within Aboriginal Australia, and ancestral, current and common ties to land and place. The sequence finishes with a series of images of women’s hands floating in pink smoke. The first of four conversations begins.
In Painting the Dance, Randall, lit by a single spotlight, approaches the wall in front of us. Her chest is exposed, dripping with coloured paint. There are remnants of previous contact on the wall: yellow swirls, blue smears, red and green flecks. She steps onto a raised stage and her body begins to talk.
This is the work of a senior artist, the product of a life-long interrogation of a body, a culture and their complicated sociopolitical contexts. Randall’s physical language has much to say and more questions to ask: her feet speaking in Yolgnu to hands that gesture in Tiwi, questioning their place in her body; a woman from New South Wales trained in traditional dance from the northern states and western techniques from across the globe.
The dancer leaves a memory of movement behind her, reminding us all that our actions leave traces: in Randall’s case a multi-coloured abstract painting. I’m not quite sure if it’s because the ceremony has dropped us straight into this performance, or whether it’s because we know we’re in the hands of experience, but we are intensely at ease. Video projections of the women’s hands in pink smoke reappear: our cue to move to the next room for our next conversation.
The following two works, Blood Quantum and Blak Ones by emerging choreographers Ngioka Bunda-Heath (Wakka Wakka/Ngugi/Biripi) and Carly Sheppard (Kurtjar/Wallangama/Takaluk/Kunjin), are the beginnings of conversations, with questions and dramaturgies not quite as fleshed out. I find myself questioning whether the public presentation of such raw material in its earliest iterations is useful to the artist or the life of the work.
Bunda-Heath’s Blood Quantum presents a dance theatre exploration of the lived experience of the Stolen Generations, as told by her grandmother through the post-doctoral thesis of her mother, Dr Tracey Bunda. The work is accompanied by photos of her family projected on the wall, personalising a story most Australians either know already, need to know or have no excuse not to know.
She reads out her grandmother’s story through her mother’s words, her body responding with the repetition of a choreographic phrase. She slams her body down on the box stage in the centre of the room. The noise of her flesh forcefully hitting the stage over and over again is uncomfortable and disarming. But it’s not as uncomfortable as being a child stolen from your family without the hope of ever seeing them again.
Bunda-Heath belongs to a new generation of emerging Indigenous choreographers who are very quickly becoming known for their emotional intelligence and appetite for adventure and risk. The difficulty with “dance-theatre” as a form is working with two distinct languages which have the ability to cancel each other out. When working with such sensitive source material, one needs to be extra careful with the delivery and placement of the spoken word. This is a retelling of Australian history that shouldn’t be lost to abstraction.
Blak Ones is the much-anticipated beginnings of a new work by one of the country’s most talked about emerging choreographers. Carly Sheppard picks up from Bunda-Heath’s passionate performance with an examination of time signatures and rhythms found in the song cycles of Aboriginal ceremonies. Sheppard engages other members of the ensemble to build a percussive soundscape through movement. Sound design (Deline Briscoe) composed of rhythmic breathing accompanies the women’s steps and shuffles as they move through the space. As a student and practitioner of traditional dance I’m aware of Sheppard’s intentions, but I wonder if this is lost on a non-Indigenous audience?
Henrietta Baird’s Stories is buoyed with humour and bursting with life. The room is set up like a school camp: there are tents lining the walls, a makeshift washing line with laundry drying. We are invited to sit inside the tents, if there’s room. The dancers assist us and then, once we are seated, they begin to tell stories. Randall is first, telling the women and the room about her first time fishing with her man. It is funny and crude and just the way we would speak when there are no non-Indigenous people present. It’s bloody refreshing to hear our lingo, unscripted and unedited, onstage for us to laugh along to and for others to figure out.
Each artist tells a story: funny, scary, rude. So does an Elder from Baird’s community, via a projection on the wall. The women then begin to dance, the movement referencing the tales we’ve just heard. We see echoed the reeling of the fishing rod, the journey of the fish. Stories are repeated, retold and echoed, keeping a culture alive and evolving.
In its earliest of iterations, Baird’s Stories is exciting. It is an unusually casual and unselfconscious coupling of storytelling and movement, and it’s genuinely refreshing.
Same But Different is one of four First Nations works in this year’s Dance Massive program, a record in the festival’s history. With a guest list of national and international presenters descending on Melbourne with an interest in presenting Australian work, Same But Different offers those with a growing awareness of Indigenous dance the rare opportunity to begin a conversation with four independent artists about their aspirations for the futures of four new and very different works.
Same But Different, curated by Mariaa Randall. Choreographed and Performed by Mariaa Randall, Henrietta Baird, Carly Sheppard, Ngioka Bunda-Heath. Video and Projection, Jody Haines. Sound design and mastering, Deline Briscoe & Airileke. Lighting Designer and Operator, Siobhain Geaney. Producer, Deline Briscoe. Arts House Meat Market as part of Dance Massive. Until 23 March. Bookings