Gabriel Dharmoo winds and twirls his hands as if conjuring delicate hums and coos from the air rather than from his mouth. The composer-vocalist’s fingers caress the space in front of him, plucking sounds and effects from the atmosphere over the mild hiss of wind coming through the speakers. He twists invisible dials and flicks percussive sounds from his fingertips, a spattering of vocal percussion. Each physical movement effects the soundscape.

This performance forms a prologue to Anthropologies Imaginaires, a showcase of the music and vocal performance practices of imaginary peoples, in which Dharmoo draws on his vocal flexibility to create a diverse array of fictional musical cultures. The first scene – showcasing a culture whose music consists purely of sounds that don’t engage the vocal chords (kissing, popping and clicking sounds) – sets the mood. Dharmoo performs in front of a screen on which a panel of experts appear and comment, documentary-style, the sound of insects filling the theatre. The disconnect between the anthropologists and the cultures they study are immediately and uncomfortable apparent, and this sense of discomfort only increases as the show progresses. References to the various culture’s diets and migration patterns highlight an academic distance, evoking the sense that the audience is observing humans in a zoo, rather than exhibits in the fictional “Memory Museum”.

Despite the darker subtext of cultural colonisation and oppression, there is plenty of humour. Dharmoo sends up megalomaniac choir directors – in an audience participation section that teetered on the edge of derailment due to audience-reluctance – as well as the hypocrisies of academia. He also gets some laughs singing into a bowl of water, frolicking gleefully as a member of a nomadic tribe for whom water is a scarcity. He uses the same bowl in the more disturbing, post-coital preventative exorcism ceremony of a tribe plagued by male sexual guilt. Fingers pressed into the centre of his torso, Dharmoo wheezes, grunts and spasms eliciting distant condescension from the watching academics on screen as he self-flagellates with a towel.

Dharmoo’s vocal virtuosity – not to mention physical and facial flexibilty – is on display throughout. The music of one culture involves a form of harmonic singing, Dharmoo creating resonant, percussive effects striking his chest with the heel of his palm. Another features a form of theatre performed by third-sex children, who differentiate characters through facial expressions and vocal timbres. Some scenes are more effective than others, however, and while the beginning and end of the performance is strong, the middle sometimes feels padded, novel ideas presented without meaningful development. The real power of the performances comes from the interaction between the smug, patronising anthropologists – who value the musical styles which have embraced elements of their own dominant culture – and Dharmoo, in his incarnations as exhibits in their museum.

The final performance is powerful, showcasing a culture of “singing through clenched teeth” – which shows a metaphor doesn’t need to be subtle to be effective – Dharmoo’s plaintive keening mirrored in the audio, creating a chorus of a forcibly quietened people – leaving the audience both titillated and complicit.

Anthropologies Imaginaires is at the Seymour Centre as part of the Sydney Festival until January 15


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