Marrugeku in Broome

Keith Gallasch talks to Rachael Swain about Burning Daylight

Trevor Jamieson and Dalisa Pigram

Trevor Jamieson and Dalisa Pigram

The Marrugeku Company’s new work is Burning Daylight, an evocative response to Broome, that idiosyncratic and richly multicultural coastal town in remote north-western Australia. Intriguing and highly entertaining excerpts were presented last December at Red Box. This huge, well-equipped rehearsal and workshop space is the erstwhile home of physical theatre and performance companies (Stalker, Marrugeku, Erth, Gravity Feed, Legs on the Wall) in Lilyfield prior to their move to their eventual home at Eveleigh St Carriageworks in Redfern, along with Performance Space. These are some of the Carr Government’s very welcome arts initiatives over recent years which have included significant developments in Western Sydney, regional NSW (see RT64) and, recently, the Critical Path dance program (see RT66) and its wonderfully located Drill Hall workshop venue in Rushcutters Bay.

The capacious Red Box showed off the potential of Burning Daylight’s emerging dance vocabulary, its vigorous and sometimes strikingly surreal sense of humour, powerful performers, a well-tuned ensemble sensibility and a dynamic design prototype heightening a sense of fantasy and of the past in the present. I spoke to Rachael Swain, artistic director with both Stalker Theatre and the Marrugeku Company, about Marrugeku’s latest venture, the point of instigation and why Broome as its subject. The company’s Crying Baby emerged from a long, complex process of successful cultural negotiation (the company was founded in 1994) and went on to tour internationally. “There was a sense from the founding company members,” says Swain, “that we had done everything we could do in Arnhem Land without continuing the same model. Three of the company members are from Broome and the community there had been wanting us to come and perform for some time, but the show was huge and getting there—before Virgin started flying to Broome—was outrageously expensive…so we failed.”

But Broome still beckoned: “We started a dialogue about what it would mean to translate the intercultural and collaborative process we’d developed in Arnhem Land into the context of Broome, which basically meant completely reconceiving our approach to negotiation with the community, our approach to choreography, and the kinds of relationships we’d built up between notions of traditional and contemporary performance.” Negotiation proved to be a key issue: this was a very different place from Arnhem Land where, says Swain, cultural practices are still strong despite significant social problems. “I think the big difference in Broome is the legacy of the assimilation policy of the Western Australian Government which was one of the most brutal and far reaching. And even though Broome was exempt from the White Australia Policy it still had a major effect. Cohabitation was illegal, so there were a lot of deportations, a lot of ‘lost’ relatives and family breakdowns. The forced removals had a big impact on the way communities and families pass on stories, dance, song and relationship to country. We were interested to work with what the legacy of this means for young people in Broome now.”

Cultural negotiation is even more complex in the circumstances of the Native Title Case that’s currently before the Australian Government for Rubibi, the whole of the Broome Peninsula. “Being in the shadow of the case with disputes over authenticity, arguments about who’s ‘real’ and who’s ‘fake’ and who can really talk for country, means that the community is very tense, and very careful, as it should be. It’s a very different experience from Arnhem Land. After several research trips and the support of people like Pat Dodson I am happy to say that there is a lot of excitement and trust in the community about Marrugeku’s process. I hope that the way we are working will help to bridge some of the tension Native Title builds in a community.”

Burning Daylight is “about halfway through its creation”, says Swain, and beginning to realise its choreographic dimension. “In the last rehearsal period we focused very much on the choreographic process we’re trying to build. Dalisa and I had lots of conversations about how we could inject some new influences into what we think of as contemporary Indigenous dance in Australia.” To this end, with the support of the NSW Ministry of the Arts, Swain went to Europe “to explore what was happening in the crossover between contemporary European dance and traditional and contemporary West African dance, because in some ways there’s a parallel set of issues being explored over there.” Swain cites the work of Mathilde Monier from which emerged the Salia ni Seydou company in Burkina Faso; the French Government-funded AFFA which runs the Afrique en Création program; and Dancas na Cicade in Lisbon with its focus on contemporary dance exchange. She was inspired by the consciousness about the importance of exchange from both sides and the awareness of the damage done by colonial attitudes.

Swain talked with these organisations, participated in classes and “took the skin completely off my feet—I had to try it out on my own body—and ended up being introduced to West African choreographer Serge Amié Coulibay…He was mixing traditional and contemporary forms himself and he was working with Belgium’s Les Ballets C de la B.” It was seeing him dance in Platel’s big new work Wolf that convinced Swain to “invite him, more or less as an experiment, to come to Australia” because “he mixed what I would think of as traditional and contermporary in such a way that the definitions didn’t matter anymore.”

Swain recalls that Serge’s first experience of Australia was a hot night at a Pigrum Brothers concert at the Roebuck Bay Hotel. “I’ll never forget the look on his face, with his chin on his chest looking up at Aboriginal Broome celebrating itself. And all these people were coming up to him and putting their skin next to his and saying, ‘Where you from?’ And he’d say, ‘Burkina Faso,’ and they’d say, ‘Where’s that?’ So he started carrying around a map in his back pocket.”

The focus, says Swain, “has been on what it means to be working with ‘a memory in tradition’ in a contemporary choreographic process.” This came after the first stage of working in Broome with Yawuru elders and “learning the dances and the company members showing each other the traditional styles. We’ve had in-depth conversations about traditional dance, ‘tourist dance’, ‘semi-traditional dance’ and what’s okay to do with it and what’s not.”

The choreography that is emerging is also textured with another influence, Silat, the Malaysian and Western Sumatran martial artform which, as Swain explains, “the elder ethnic Malays in Broome still practice. Datu Amat, one of the Malay grandfathers in Broome taught class to the company the whole Broome period, and he’s allowed Dalisa to go on teaching it. So I guess we’re trying to devise a movement style that the locals would call ‘mixed breed’, responding to the multiple traditions that exist in Broome. I feel like we know what we’re doing choreographically now and we know where we’ll go with it and it’s time to start making the show..

For Swain and Pigrum the kind of Indigenous dance and its representation in Burning Daylight is a key issue. Pirgrum writes, “I think that more Aboriginal choreographers are needed, coming from a wider variety of trainings and backgrounds so people can see that there are other styles of Aboriginal dance to appreciate and understand…In proposing a new work for Marrugeku in Broome using different forms of performance in new ways with Aboriginal dance (contemporary or traditional) we wouldn’t be taking anything away from what has already been developed. We would only be increasing the possibilities of what we think Aboriginal dance is today. I think other Aboriginal groups in the Kimberley and Pilbara regions for example and many more have not had the opportunity to have their story told or their dance style shown.”

Although the work-in-progress showing focused on dance passages there were narrative moments, indications of emerging personae, bursts of satire, songs and some of the ingredients for the musical score to come. In what way would all these come together?

Swain says that a key inspiration for the show is the image of Broome from the turn of the 19th to the 20th century as an “Asian Wild West”: “the traces of that are still very strong.” Another inspiration is Tracey Moffatt and her working from “particular filmic and photographic genres and playing with the cultural stereotypes within those frames.” Just as influential are the “noodle western” genre (big in Thai cinema) and the Broome-style karaoke night at the Roebuck Bay Hotel on Monday nights—“seriously wild west”, quips Swain. Consequently Burning Daylight is set in the street outside the karaoke bar from midnight to dawn with songs from the whole multi-skilled cast. Swain explains that “with each karaoke number there will be a noodle western-inspired video: “The videos will have classic interracial melodrama narratives. They’ll be shot by the fabulous (cinematographer and filmmaker) Warwick Thorton featuring the historic characters of Broome—the pearl diver, the Aboriginal stockman, the geisha—as the characters in the noodle western, set against the backdrops of the White Australia Policy, assimilation policies and the internment of Japanese locals during World War II. There’s a kind of haunting of the contemporary world of Broome with these historic figures.

“We’re just at the point now where we’re starting to weave backwards and forwards between the video narratives and the characters we’re developing onstage and looking at the echoes and reflections between the live performance and the video content.”

How long before the work is realised? “We were very happy to get 2 development stages in one year: quite a big achievement for us in terms of raising funds. We hope to build the set, shoot the videos, have 6 weeks rehearsal and begin commissioning at least half an hour of music this year. And we plan to have a showing of all of that in Broome in September. It will probably take us another 9 months to put it all together with lights and costumes, edit the videos, put the whole jigsaw together and run it. We’re aiming for an avant-premiere in August-September 2006 which we’re hoping will take place in Broome, Kununurra and Darwin, playing the show in front of the audience who will have lived the experience of the subject matter.”

Marrugeku Company, Burning Daylight, a work-in-progress, director Rachael Swain, co-choreographers Dalisa Pigram, Serge Aimé Coulibaly, cinematographer Warwick Thornton, designer Joey Ruigrok van de Werven, dramaturg Josephine Wilson, musical director Matthew Fargher, musician/consultant Lorrae Coffin, composer/musican Justin Gray, composer/musican Cameron Goold, composer Kerri-Anne Cox, performer-devisors Dalisa Pigram, Trevor Jamieson, Yumi Umiumare, Katia Molino, Scott Grayland, Owen Maher, Sermsah Bin Saad (Suri), trainee Toto Djiagween

RealTime issue #65 Feb-March 2005 pg. 12

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

1 February 2005