Review by Lisa Lanzi
Please note: this review contains mention of suicide, violence, and names of deceased indigenous persons.
In 2022, OzAsia has prefaced each performance with one of the most beautiful welcome to and recognition of country declarations I have heard. It finishes by encouraging all to “acknowledge our past and seize our future”. Such a powerful statement contrasts ardently with the projected scrolling text of Gudirr Gudirr’s opening which references a shocking section of the WA Government’s “chief protector of Aborigines” report from 1928. These edicts also applied to the influx of South East Asian cultures who arrived in Broome to work in the pearl industry.
Yawuru/Bardi woman Dalisa Pigram, born and raised in Rubibi (Broome), is a captivating, big-hearted presence on stage. In Gudirr Gudirr, she is responsible for the concept and is the solo performer and co-choreographer framed by a stunning soundscape, indigenous songs, and video installation. Presented at OzAsia Festival by Marrugeku, an indigenous and culturally focussed bi-coastal company operating between Broome WA and Carriageworks, Sydney for 27 years.
The work is truly collaborative and the exceptional creative dream team includes: Set Designer & Video Artist Vernon Ah Kee, Costume Designer Stephen Curtis, Composer & Sound Designer Sam Serruys, Singer & Songwriter Stephen Pigram, and Lighting Designer Matthew Marshall.
Marrugeku’s patron is Yawuru elder and esteemed national reconciliation advocate Patrick Dodson, a recipient of the Sydney International Peace prize. Mr Dodson is also Concept & Cultural Adviser for Gudirr Gudirr. Rachael Swain (whose work The Demon was also staged this year at OzAsia) is Dramaturg & Creative Producer and also Artistic Co-director of Marrugeku alongside Dalisa Pirgram.
The dance theatre work includes diverse solo movement sections, use of spoken word, and breathtaking moments using a suspended fishing net for some acrobatic ‘silks’ work. Ms Pigram’s movement vocabulary is drawn from her knowledge of Silat (Malaysian martial arts), gymnastics, traditional cultural dance and her observation of animal behaviour, all paired with various contemporary dance forms. Working originally with Koen Augustijnen through a task-based choreographic process, the movement sections are undeniably emotion-filled and meaningful. Pigram is assured, strong, expressive and focussed, much of the dance work including gestural motifs and connecting to the earth with grounded, low level choreography.
The dangling length of ‘fishing net’ is a focal point at times and certainly aids in expressing bound energy, despair, and anger. The net becomes at times a dance partner, and at others, a foe, a cage, a playful swing, a tool, or an extension of the dancer’s stance and action. One scene includes a tortured climb toward the lighting rig, and subsequent slide and dramatic drop back to ground level - projected background to this is a night view of a pale, twisted gum canopy, the allusions to suicide poignantly made.
Two different sections see Pigram with microphone in hand. The first, with projected red text reading: “the time is now”. Her spoken litany of grievous harms to indigenous peoples is uttered as a list, each item beginning “the time is over…” as the performer paces horizontally, back and forth on stage. The list continues but shifts to “the time is now…” as a preface. These statements are equally confronting, like the fact that suicide didn’t have a word in Aboriginal language until recently. In a different spoken word section Pigram recounts the frustrations and jibes so often front and centre in a non-white person’s life: She utters a string of “f**ken…” this and that, with the word projected and layered until it crowds the upstage screen. Eventually the expletive becomes simply a spoken rhythm as Pigram traverses diagonals across the stage until slowly collapsing to the floor and rolling upstage, the microphone cable wrapping around her body.
There is some degree of harrowing irony that Gudirr Gudirr’s South Australian premiere has coincided with the nationwide vigils and rallies to mourn and protest the recent violent death of Cassius Turvey in WA. Given that the genesis of this work occurred around eleven years ago, it is inexcusable that the content and thematic material is just as relevant now. In an affecting finale, black and white portraits of Pigram’s family are projected on screen as the performer is entwined in the cage of the netting. The generations of her multicultural family are a reminder that atrocities that have occurred before are still an issue for indigenous people today, not only in Australia but worldwide.
There is a delicious and successful melding of artforms within Gudirr Gudirr that allows a universal story to be told where many layers, images and ideas stream forth. It is a credit to Marrugeku and the artists that rigorous research, cultural awareness, and empathic approaches to creating theatre results in such a unified, satisfying, and memorable work.