Karul Projects was formed in 2017 by Thomas E.S. Kelly and Taree Sansbury with a mission to create and continue reconciliation through art, mainly dance. Moving base from Sydney to Brisbane in 2018, Karul Projects has now firmly established its own independent, indigenous dance identity, where Kelly, as chorographer, fuses his own cultural practice with contemporary movement, percussion and voice to create intensely physical works. Silence, Karul Projects’ first full-length work, is the result of a two-year creative period, and it shows.
This work, about the silence that surrounds the issue of a treaty for the First Peoples of Australia, has carefully crafted movement, is dramatically cohesive, and delivers a powerful message with dignity and an often, biting wit. Receiving standing ovations across all performances apparently, during the Brisbane Festival, Kelly draws the audience into the debate, engendering empathy as well as admiration.
At just on an hour, and not a second longer than necessary, the work itself however, is anything but silent. Divided roughly into two parts, ‘Lore’ and ‘Treaty’, it was underpinned by composer, Jhindu-Pedro’s, riveting soundtrack, a sometimes-urgent expression of anger and frustration. Jhindu-Pedro also performed live with vocals, and on drums – upstage left. He also delivered the first monologue of the performance, with a witty sleight of hand reveal of ‘boomerangs for sale’.
The six other performers, including Kelly, wore assorted casual clothing – jeans, shirts and hoodies. The layers were gradually unpeeled during the work and manipulated around the body for different effect. At one point, shirts with the words ‘Treaty’ or ‘Silence’ emblazoned across their backs were held up for display.
Kelly’s movement style is at times clearly drawn from his indigenous practice – grounded, and fluidly rising and falling with broad reaching movements of the arms. At other times a flurry of wild pent-up spinning and stamping, conveys an urgency, and, underscored by the pervasive beating of drums, an almost contemporary jazz-funk feel. Gestures – pointing, holding the mouth, reaching, or patting the stage floor – gave dramatic clues. Although executed with a natural ease and cohesion by all the dancers, Sansbury was particularly notable for her intensity and clarity of performance.
The movement was cleverly interrupted by interludes of spoken, invariably witty dialogue, and credit must go to dramaturg, Alethea Beetson, and choreographic dramaturg, Vicky van Hout, for the skillful integration of the two.
Spoken text can drive the narrative with a precision that often can’t be done by movement alone. For instance, a satirical sketch about an imaginary FNTA – First Nations Tenancy Association – while uproariously funny, also cut to the bone. Another deliberately unsettling segment had the cast singing the Australian National Anthem translated from English and underpinned by a tinny beat on a toy drum.
The different sections of the work were punctuated by fades to black, as part of an edgy lighting design by Karen Norris of mainly white overhead and side spots. Adding another textural layer to the visual was the dragging and stamping of what seemed to be a mix of ochre and sand into the space, which filled the air with haze.
Kelly drew on the traditional lore of the emu, represented by the space between stars in the sky, for the work’s inspiration, and therefore Silence is about this space between, the conversations not acknowledged, and the struggle to fill that silence. Yothu Yindi’s seminal 1991 song, Treaty, heard in the work’s final moments, was a potent reminder of the tenacity of this silence, 30 years on. Karul Projects’ voice, while yet another in the conversation, may nevertheless be a platform for better awareness and broader discussion.
Potent messaging aside, this is a terrifically entertaining work and deserves a broader post-Covid exposure.
– DENISE RICHARDSON