Coinciding with the International Society for the Performing Arts congress coming to Western Australia, BlakDance brought two Australian First Nations dance works to Perth.

Silence was mounted by the still relatively young Indigenous company Karul Projects (cofounded in 2017 by Thomas E.S. Kelly and Taree Sansbury), while The Other Side of Me was from Northern Territory dance veteran Gary Lang.

Both works differ considerably from the Indigenous contemporary dance fusions pioneered by the national, Sydney-based company of Bangarra from the 1990s onwards, reminding audiences that today Australian First Nations contemporary dance reflects a diversity of modes, varying from streetwise funk, to elegiac masculinity, and much besides.

The Other Side of Me (NT Dance Company). Photo © Paz Tassone

The Other Side of Me is a study of doubling and internal conflict, set in an abstract prison environment, which may be literal, or simply in the mind.

Although apparently inspired by the real story of a young Aboriginal man who became separated from Country and heritage by being imprisoned in a British jail, the choreography and projected imagery provided little link to this specific narrative.

The focus was rather on a generalised, abstract sense of self-division, conflict, trauma, and longing, which dramatised by interactions between the dancers Tyrel Dulvarie and Alexander Abbot, as reflections of each other.

The choreography blends elements of Australian Indigenous performance with something close to acrodance or Contact Improvisation. There are moments where one or another dancer stands facing forward, in the characteristic Indigenous pose of legs apart, knees bent, the pelvis dropped low towards the ground, as the arms sketch wide arcs and warrior-like gestures. More commonly however the dancers hold onto, or rest on, each other, sharing or carrying the partner’s weight. Bodies frequently go onto the ground to roll, and then the legs are raised above the prone form.

Most striking is that while such dance requires considerable strength and muscular tension, the movement is supple and gentle, taking the form of caresses. There is something of a queer sensibility here, where the path to healing wounded masculinity is not depicted as one of a toughening or hardening of the resistant body, but rather an acceptance of the loving caress of another or of oneself.

Presumably imagining rather than returning to Country, the dance ends with the pair painting up in ochre, spreading arms wide in an eagle like gesture, and then going back to the ground, where the two cradle each other in a pièta (the pose Mary adopts in paintings where she holds the dead Christ). Whether this represents their death or their redemption remains unstated.

Silence (Karul Projects). Photo © Gregory Lorenzutti

Silence is very different, being an ensemble work for seven (Kelly, Sansbury, Jhindu-Pedro Lawrie, Benjin Maza, Glory Tuohy-Daniell, Keia McGrady, Olivia Adams and Tamara Bouman).

The performance takes the form of a series of sketches, some actorly and comedic, while others are choreographic. Interludes include a bureaucratic phone-call from the Indigenous landlords to the Australian government, reminding us that we are in serious arrears with rent, and need to make amends for unauthorised renovations to the property. There is also a jocular young man explaining to the audience the concepts of lore and law in Aboriginal culture.

Kelly’s choreography is strongly inflected with urban street dance, and hence, particularly in the opening sequence, the dance comes close to the fusion of jazz, modern dance, Graham technique, and Indigenous choreographies which Stephen Page and others developed at Bangarra and the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Association Dance College. Kelly’s work though has a more street-style aesthetic, with a greater influence of hip hop and martial arts styles like wing chun which hip-hop incorporated.

Kelly offers a particularly impressive solo as a human-emu hybrid, his arm becoming the neck and beak, as the creature’s trajectories flow into and out of his body. Handfuls of dirt are thrown onto or around him, making this creature’s actions resemble those of the bush turkeys that populate much of Kelly’s home state.

Overall, there is more of a sense of funk in Kelly’s movement than was typical of Bangarra; not quite popping per se, but the body is often arrested or syncopated to generate clear rhythmic accents. Where the work of Lang and Page tended to flow and pour, Kelly crafts something closer to speech inflected with intentional stutters.

These distinctions were clearly reflected in the music for both works, which did include elements of the ambient house music and reggae which so influenced Bangarra main composer David Page — what he aptly described to me as a tropical “fruit salad”. But the literally building-shaking rumble of the bass, stabbing electronica, and glitch funk which accompanies moments of both The Other Side of Me and Silence – composed by Samuel Pankhurst in the first case, and Pankhurst together with onstage drummer and performer Jhindu-Pedro Lawrie for Silence — gives many sequences a hard edged sound, and a sense of menace, both of which were rare in the Page brothers’ music-dance collaborations.

Silence (Karul Projects). Photo © Simon Woods

A recurrent choreographic motif in Silence was the clasping of one fist, before the hand is brought around to the head and face, blowing on it, and sending the force out across the stage, often to be caught by another performer. Later this became handfuls of soil shared between the cast, a literalisation of how Country is linked to body, identity and community. As the final musical track of the performance stutters expressively: “Al… always was … always will be… Aboriginal land”.

While Karul Projects’ dancers may not exhibit the level of choreographic polish offered by Lang’s performers (especially the supremely supple Dulvarie), Kelly more than made up for this in tonal variation through his choreographies, moving from an almost punk sensibility to a set of arrangements and combinations akin to a contemporary music video.

Neither Silence nor The Other Side of Me had quite the punch of Marrugeku’s searing choreographic addresses to the nation in their film-clip This Is Australia and the associated production of Jurrungu Ngan-ga [Straight Talk], but The Other Side of Me and Silence both presented pointed critiques directed against the leaders of our shared “nation of jailers” and the ongoing violence against First Nations culture and communities which the status quo facilitates.

BlakDance presented The Other Side of Me by Gary Lang NT Dance Company (State Theatre Centre; April 30–May 2, 2024), & Silence by Karul Projects (His Majesty’s Theatre; May 1–2 2024).

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