Invitations to other worlds

Keith Gallasch: MAU, Stones in Her Mouth; Djuki Mala (Chooky Dancers)

Stones in her Mouth, MAU

Stones in her Mouth, MAU

Stones in her Mouth, MAU

During Reconciliation Week 2014 in Sydney two dance works by Indigenous creators offered insights into the challenges to their cultures—for Djuki Mala, the suicides of young men; for MAU, the diminished status of Maori women—each produced with the companies’ distinctive magic.

MAU, Stones in Her Mouth

Samoan choreographer Lemi Ponifasio, the director of MAU, the New Zealand-based dance company, and his collaborators, make haunting large-scale works inspired and nourished by the cultures of the South Pacific.

As in previous MAU works, Stones in Her Mouth conjoins traditional culture, dance and contemporary performance, heightening the melding with stage and sound design in which immersion and illusion are fundamental, such that, without narrative, we lose ourselves in a dream world that we acknowledge as sublimely other but also familiarly Western in its disorienting stagecraft.

Ponifasio carefully prepares his audience to enter the world of Maori women. We listen in protracted darkness to a growing, dark rumbling above which sonic pings evoke sub-marine depths (or “The fabric of creation/ The unfathomable space/ The internal void/ The conscious light/ The unravelling path…” in the show’s text). In the foreground a narrow strip the width of the stage floor glows with fluorescent intensity, blinding us to what lies in the void behind until the performers enter—their serene gliding (a MAU signature) made more magical by our not being able to perceive the dancers’ lower bodies. In a complementary image at the very end of Stones In Her Mouth, the floor shines like a black pool into which the women slowly wade, appearing to sink, as if spirits returning to their realm.

More than spirits, these women are like Maori goddesses: elegantly erect, imperiously inexpressive, whether as powerful individuals or groups moving in intersecting circles or, in rows facing us, deploying sticks or poi, the balls on strings that here suggest anti-gravitational, supernatural force born of ritual and shamanic power. That power is given voice and individual passion in the solo singing and reciting, alternating affectingly between anger and lament. Unfortunately there are no surtitles (which would perhaps diminish the stage magic) but the texts in the printed program can be read subsequently (or at festival.co.nz/stones-in-her-mouth/). The following program note explains the motivation for the work and the nature of its texts:

“Stones In Her Mouth was conceived as a leadership project of young women travelling and working in the community: in marae, schools and rural areas of New Zealand and in the world. …the women’s challenge is voiced through the M?ori language, genealogy, body, spirituality, ceremony, family and nature. They communicate their adaptiveness, resiliency, beauty and rage against the apparatus of power, oppression and even Western-style feminism. Stones In Her Mouth is based on writings of moteatea, the strong M?ori tradition of women as poets and composers. In Stones In Her Mouth, the chants, songs, oratory and calls are written and composed by the performers themselves.”

Movement is restricted to a set of recurrent motifs including vibrating hands and fingers, the aforementioned gliding and patterning, hands covering faces, single arms shooting upward and heads bent so far back that the dancers momentarily appear alarmingly headless.

One scene breaks the aura of ritual and its eerie but integrated cosmos: a lone woman in white, her hair loose, has been branded with a painted red cross, suggestive of the destructiveness of Christianity for Indigenous cultures; the same paint runs down her thigh, as if she has been raped. In the final scene, do the women return to an eternal spirit world or do they, as emblematic of beleaguered cultures, disappear forever into the void?

In his theatre of images, Ponifasio eschews narrative for suggestiveness. He and his superb lighting (Helen Todd) and sound designers (not specified) and the MAU performers sculpt a quasi-spiritual dream space, hinting at meanings, occasionally made specific (more so if you’ve read the text), and leave us awed to reflect on the fate of an Indigenous culture so close to Australia and paralleling the plight of our own.

MAU continues its relationship with Carriageworks, part of a three-year project, with two works from the company’s international repertoire (Stones in Her Mouth and, in 2013, Birds with Sky Mirrors, RT114, RT115), with the promise of an already much anticipated new work for Carriageworks in 2015.

Baykali Ganambarr, Wakara Gondarra, Djuki Mala

Baykali Ganambarr, Wakara Gondarra, Djuki Mala

Baykali Ganambarr, Wakara Gondarra, Djuki Mala

Djuki Mala

A full house of devoted Sydney fans exuberantly greeted Djuki Mala [formerly the Chooky Dancers] for the Elcho Island group’s touring autobiographical show in which they interpolate their dancing with projected interviews with the performers and the eloquent wife of their late founder Big Frank Dulmanawuy—“we are living his dream.”

A brief opening speech from company director Josh Bond introduced a sombre note, reminding us that Australia has the second highest rate of youth suicide in the world, with Indigenous young men dying at double the rate of their white peers. Each member of the group had been affected by the suicide of a relative. Lack of awareness, under-resourced support organisations and the absence of a sense of mutual responsibility, said Bond, contributed to the deaths. While the performance did not dwell on this crisis it underlined the motivation for the creation of Djuki Mala—to create careers for young men living in a remote small town with one shop, now engaged with their culture and with art from further afield to give their lives and others’ meaning. Filmed aerial views revealed the greater extent of the performers’ lives—the sheer scale of country, the beautiful landscapes on which they learn their Dreaming and to hunt.

Djuki Mala’s dances are hugely varied, ranging from their signature “Zorba’s Dance,” the umbrella twirling “Singing in the Rain” and a very funny, acutely observant Bollywood number (gold turbans, sunglasses, flashing teeth and their eight-man many-armed Goddess Kali) to a formal dance with spears, a long, low-stepping, stalking dance with moments of the hunter’s absolute stillness, and an exquisitely elegant and seemingly melancholy solo performed slowly and almost on the spot, subtly merging rowing and martial arts moves from a very low centre of gravity.

This Djuki Mala production—more informal than 2010’s intensely dramatic Ngurrumilmarrmiriyu (Wrong Skin) (RT99)—boldy persists with the group’s project, to give meaning to young lives, building awareness of the cultural complexities of Indigenous life in itself and within non-indigenous Australia. Djuki Mala are charismatic parodists of Western and other popular cultures, increasingly skilled dancers and deadly serious about their craft and the issues they confront.

Carriageworks, Concertgebouw Brugge and Tjibaou Cultural Centre: Lemi Ponifasio/MAU, Stones in Her Mouth, Carriageworks, 28-31 May; Djuki Mala, Seymour Centre, Sydney, 28-31 May

RealTime issue #122 Aug-Sept 2014 pg. 34

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

18 August 2014