Heath Ledger Theatre, WA State Theatre Centre
Reviewed September 20
Marrugeku’s political dance theatre work Jurrungu Ngan-ga [Straight Talk] premiered in Broome, 2021, before touring to the Adelaide Festival and now Perth. Photos show there have been some tweaks and shuffling of cast due to Covid, but . The work is currently a taut beast, full of fierce energy and a strongly driven sense of progression. Jurrungu Ngan-ga is a true ensemble work, featuring nine distinctive performer-dancers, directed by Rachael Swain and choreographed by Dalisa Pigram.
Jurrungu Ngan-ga offers a critique of what the production’s cultural dramaturgs Behrouz Boochani, Omid Tofighian and Patrick Dodson have designated the Australian “kyriarchal system” of our carceral “nation of jailers”. Be they refugees or First Nations Australians, trans individuals or non conformers, those deemed a threat to the perceived harmony, passivity and homogeneity of the Australian community are forcibly separated and confined—as in the gaolhouses which defined colonial Sydney. The message of Jurrungu Ngan-ga is that rather than the world outside being “real” Australia, it is the raucous, multi-racial and often queer bodies and their gestures in prison which best represent Australia.
Jurrungu Ngan-ga positions theatre and choreography as potentially imprisoning. In Perth, the piece was performed in still flash looking Heath Ledger theatre, its proscenium separating spectators from performers. The back was closed off by what designer Abdul-Rahman Abdullah describes as a “monolithic wall” consisting of “perforated aluminium frames … drawn from the industrial materiality of steel … in modular repetition. Everything is replaceable”—like the humans corralled within. Early choreographic sequenceshad a cool, European tanz-theater feel, with bodies often stuttering, shuddering, or getting caught in rhythms and patterns which constrained.
Performer Bhenji Ra played “Maysam The Whore”, the only character from Boochani’s account of life in Manus Island Detention Centre to be literally depicted on stage. After pushing her way from behind the back wall and glowering at the live feed video camera above her, Maysam/Ra began one of a series of monologues in which she accused those behind the camera and us in the audience of secretly desiring her trans body. She cited a moment when she and other vogue dancers reproduced a movement which was a signature of the recently deceased “mother” who had established her own queer dance community.
Bringing the movements and names of the dead back to life served as a catalyst, shifting us into a series of carnivalesque, celebratory and dispersive ensemble interactions. Marrugeku’s Luke Currie-Richardson rapped a spirited version of Childish Gambino’s music video “This Is America” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYOjWnS4cMY), here becoming the bleak portrait “This Is Australia” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pEZQxLcw6qg).
From this point onwards, the choreography jumped between a dizzying array of distinct yet partially fused styles, ranging from the open legged, bouncing pose of Australian First Nations dance, to voguing, krump (a particularly muscular yet discombobulated form of hip hop), snatches of classical and traditional dance (Kurdish, Palestinian, ballet), Euro-American fusions and contemporary art dance.
The energy, inventiveness and chaotic variety of material pushed the show along, taking us out of a realm where bodies were forced to do what bosses and prison guards told them, into a state where, while still shaped, formed and sometimes spasming, the dancers were now set free into bursts of abstract movement and snatches of caricatural mime. A faux Captain Cook appeared in a satiny, green uniform. Guards’ caps were donned even as dancer Miriam Wheen helicoptered her fist above her head, dropping into an almost lewd bounce.
The performance had opened with the magnetic dancer Emmanuel James Brown, alone, his legs gracefully criss-crossing as slithery trajectories rippled across his shoulders, fingers and arms. The production closed with him. It was therefore a First Nations Australian who greeted us into the space, and who saw us out. Despite kyriarchal system, this was, and will always remain, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land. It remains to be seen if the Australian electorate as a whole understand this.
My own reading of Marrugeku’s take on Australia’s historical-political inheritance is that, far from asking settler descent individuals like me if I would consent to allow those whom the kyriarchy have marginalised to voice their own concerns to the national parliament representing us, we should be asking the peoples we put into detention if they might release us from what in the program is described as “the prison of the Australian mind”; to not just walk, but maybe even dance, shudder and rap, along with those on stage.
– JONATHAN W. MARSHALL
The Perth season of “Jurrungu Ngan-ga” ran from Sept 15 to 23.
Please note: The photos above are from the Sydney season.