Burrbgaja Yalirra / Dancing Forwards with Marrugeku
by Mark Mordue
Edwin Lee Mulligan says he gets all his stories from his dreams. On a crackling phone call from Noonkanbah in the central Kimberley of Western Australia his voice seems to slip away then return. Half the time it’s more like I’ve called a place than a person.
When his voice does cut through it’s with adamant force. Mulligan tells me he speaks to the “old fellas” – “the shamans” – to better understand what his dreams are telling him. “I never wanted to be a poet,” he adds derisively, “I’d never even thought about it.”
Initially, he’d explored painting as his means of expression, inspired by the works of his grandfather, the renowned artist Jimmy Pike. It was while working as a field guide for anthropologists, “visiting my grandfather’s country”, that Mulligan’s ideas about painting and storytelling began to expand and mesh as his dreams intensified.
Soon he’ll be performing in Sydney as one of three storytellers with the indigenous and ‘intercultural’ dance company Marrugeku. Burrbgaja Yalirra weaves the work of Mulligan, Miranda Wheen and Eric Avery into a set of solo performances based around themes of ‘reciprocity’ and sharing.
In a taut 75-minute show without interval, the three performers oscillate between intimate evocations of the past and imagined possibilities, evoking the best and worst of our country. Though Burrbgaja Yalirra translates in the Yawuru language as ‘Dancing Forwards’, it is more akin to a world of echoes and counterpoints, flashbacks and flash-forwards, that do not flow so easily or comfortably in one direction.
Mulligan’s opening piece is a spoken-word performance entitled ‘Ngarlimbah’, which roughly translates as ‘You are as much a part of me as I am of you’. In it, he tells the stories of two dingoes, the calm Yungngora and the dark Jirrilbil, who are pursuing a Clever Man across the landscape. The Clever Man hurls an axe at the dingoes, wounding Jirilbil, whose final resting place is a billabong near Mulligan’s Noonkanbah home where waterlilies now grow in abundance.
During the performance, Mulligan alludes to “an ancient greeting” his people have: “We are like flowers balancing on unsettled waters.” It’s an apposite image for his creative process and, indeed, the life of Marrugeku as a visionary performance company.
Marrugeku will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year. Formed in Oenpelli (now called Gunbalanya) in West Arnhem Land in 1994, it arose out of a collaboration between Kunwinjku storykeepers, dancers and musicians, Kamilaroy choreographer Michael Leslie, Western Australian Aboriginal dancers and musicians, and the highly physical, multimedia performance group Stalker, whose signature trademark was its use of stilts and aerial stunts. When the community at Gunbalanya first saw the stilt dancers, they perceived the performers as akin to the Mimih spirits of lore.
Together with Dalisa Pigram, who was then a brilliant young dancer, and this large group of artists from around the country, Rachael Swain found herself forming a new company. It drew on indigenous wisdom and movement combined with all she had learnt as a performer and director trained in contemporary performance. In combining indigenous and non-indigenous members, modern and traditional and multicultural forms, Marrugeku has consistently worked between worlds ever since, with Pigram and Swain collaborating.
The influence of the Flemish wave and titanic figures like Pina Bausch has been especially important, Pigram says, “because of how they honour the artist themselves and the way they know what exists in the artist’s body”. But she is reluctant to see Marrugeku narrowly defined as a dance company. “It’s about story. For us mob, story and song, painting and dance, it’s all one thing. Categorizing us as dance alone is not going to do us any favours.”
“Marrugeku (currently written in a more recent orthography as marrkidjbu) is actually the plural of ‘Clever Man’,” Swain tells me. “It means ‘Clever People’. The Kunwinjku elders gave us that name from our dancing on stilts; they saw us as transforming into spirits. I feel what we do does help an audience to see both the human and the spirit world. And that those old people who named us passed that on. They recognised, early on, the form of the company – and allowed for an audience to see that in us.”
In 2003, Marrugeku switched their headquarters to Broome, Pigram’s home town. Swain explains to me that along with the Torres Straight Islands, Broome was the only place in the country exempt from the White Australia Policy due to a need for indentured labour and divers for the pearling industry. “It’s a microcosm of what Australia could have been,” she says. “Because of that history, indigeneity is already intercultural in Broome.”
Marrugeku’s cultural and artistic home remains in Broome, but its operations are now bi-costal, having established itself as a resident company of Carriageworks in 2016. Burrbgaja Yalirra reflects this dualistic energy in every way. Co-commissioned by Carriageworks and the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art, its world premiere took place at the Broome Civic Centre on 30th May 2018 before a season in June at PICA. Now it’s Sydney’s turn.
On Swain’s office shelf at Carriageworks a sign for ‘Canarvon Street’ carries English, Arabic, Bahasa Indonesian and Japanese scripts. The sign is a replica taken from a past production, Burning Daylight. It references a main drag of Broome where, Swain says, “the young people walk the streets, and the inter-generational ghosts haunts them”.
For all Marrugeku’s power to speak from the body in profoundly metaphysical ways, they remain among the most politically committed of all artistic companies in Australia. It’s an ethos evident in their patron and cultural adviser, Patrick Dodson’s statement that “their work transcends romantic representation, to represent the complex social reality of contemporary indigenous society in a manner that confronts ever increasing audiences of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.”
In Burrbgaja Yalirra a non-Indigenous dancer, Miranda Wheen, explores a white fantasy of merger with the landscape, a story rooted in an unpublished final chapter from the iconic Australian novel, Picnic at Hanging Rock. Her namesake ‘Miranda’, who disappeared so famously in the film translation, is reincarnated here as a tormented revenant born back out of the stone again in her old white cotton dress.
‘Miranda’ becomes a blend of nightmare and dream at once, with Wheen calling out “sorry” while her body struggles to translate her encounter. Wheen makes provocative use of her training in ballet, Indian, world and Aboriginal dance. But as Marrugeku’s Artistic Director Rachael Swain explains, “She can’t channel all these [dance] forms and it produces this – this madness about her. It’s quite an intense work.”
Dancer and classical violinist Eric Avery ends the show. His performance tells the story of his great, great, great, great grandfather, who saw the First Fleet sailing by. Swain talks about Avery’s first scene, “where the movement is entirely based on alertness. An alertness not just in his grandfather, but in all the animals on the mountain side watching the First Fleet pass.”
As the title for his piece ‘Dancing with Strangers’ might suggest, Avery draws on readings like Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance as well as his own family’s oral history. According to Swain, “Eric imagines what might have been if we had danced and made music together. Eric embodies these ideas and plays with them and sings them. And he acknowledges it didn’t happen, the dispossession that did occur.”
This turbulent reciprocity and search for possibility is embedded within the production and its formation: Mulligan collaborates with the Perth-based multimedia artist and animator Sohan Ariel Hayes; Wheen and Avery work, respectively, with the leading Belgian choreographers, Serge Aimé Coulibaly and Koen Augustijnen. As associate artists with Marrugeku, the idea is to move these three performers forwards as storytellers, releasing the energy and ability of what Dalisa Pigram calls “these future change makers”.
Mulligan’s phone call from far away comes back into my mind. “Whitefellas look at the country physically, not spiritually,” he says. He repeats this insight three or four times like I can never understand. In ‘Ngarlimbah’, both Jirrilbil and Yungngora have returned to Edwin in his dreams to speak with him about his community today. Sohan Ariel Hayes brings Mulligan’s paintings to life through animation as Mulligan recounts this experience to us. Marrugeku’s Artistic Director Dalisa Pigram says, “It scares the hell out of you, actually.”
When Mulligan talks to me about ‘Ngarlimbah’ he is emphatic: “This is an actual story.” It’s only later I register that his use of the word ‘actual’ is to emphasize this is not just some story or dream, it is something that really happened – and it is happening again as the story is told once more. In Burrbgaja Yalirra, Mulligan, Wheen and Avery each bust time open in this way, each in their own way. Not through dance alone, but through a journey into being.