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Edwin Lee Mulligan, Cut the Sky creative development Edwin Lee Mulligan, Cut the Sky creative development
photo Rod Hartvigsen
“If you were in my country I could show you places and you could see the picture in front of you. The story is alive and well and in front of you.”

Edwin Lee Mulligan, painter and poet, often referred to as a dream catcher, is telling me the story of Dungkabah, an ancient ancestor from his area around Noonkanbah in North Western Australia. Dungkabah, who steals people in their sleep and “entombs them in the spirit world,” is the maker of the “poisoned gas” that is now such a valuable commodity. We are sitting in Carriageworks in urban Sydney and while Mulligan admits it is hard to understand the full resonance of the story without access to its physical home, he offers a quiet but urgent invitation to contemporary Australia to try just that little bit harder to see from an Aboriginal perspective.

Mulligan is working with the Broome-based company Marrugeku on their latest show, Cut the Sky. It is conceived by Dalisa Pigram (co-choreographer) and Rachael Swain (director) and will premiere at the Perth International Arts Festival in February and play at WOMADelaide in March. Cut the Sky is dance theatre that attempts to grapple with the issue of climate change—particularly from the Aboriginal perspective on land and resource management. Along the way it draws on a number of other cultural and thematic touchstones: The Noonkanbah Protests against state-sanctioned mining on sacred sites in 1980; Werner Herzog and Wandjuk Marika’s documentary Where the Green Ants Dream (1984); and the Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weil opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Set in the aftermath of a future man-made environmental disaster, the characters, including mining workers, a geologist, a sex worker, a displaced traditional owner and a protester, have to find their way in the radically changed world.

The show has developed from the Listening to Country laboratory that took place in 2013. Pigram says, “We took dancers to specific sites close to Edwin’s country, including Wandjina Gorge and places close to Broome. We were interested in trying to find ways of listening to country to effect our dramaturgy in this kind of dance theatre making. And we found something there for sure which led to us thinking, What if we don’t listen to country? What if we set this piece in the future and the damage is done… [We are also] finding ourselves being propelled back into the times of the Noonkanbah Protests in Edwin’s country. Have questions changed, or are they the same? Are we processing these ideas of resource management and caring for country in the right ways to sustain our lifestyles and our people?”

Along with the research from the laboratory, Mulligan’s poems also have had a direct effect on the choreography. Pigram says, “From the moment [Edwin] starts to speak about these physical dreams he’s actually experienced and turned into poetry it really opens your mind to seeing in a different way and allows [you as a] dancer to take that into your body…to develop the movement language and start to shape scenes.” Mulligan, primarily a painter and poet, is happy to have found a different medium for sharing his dreams: “I’m really privileged to work not only with Dalisa but other dancers too, where we [ex]change words and stories…translate stories into dance patterns.”

Eric Avery, Dalisa Pigram, Cut the Sky creative development Eric Avery, Dalisa Pigram, Cut the Sky creative development
photo Rod Hartvigsen
Music is also a strong driver within Cut the Sky. The show is divided into five acts or “mediations” based around five songs, two extant from Nick Cave, one from Buffalo Springfield and two commissioned from pop-funk artist Ngaiire [Joseph]. These are performed by singer/actress Ngaire Pigram under the musical direction of Matthew Fargher. Dalisa Pigram explains, “We’re looking at the function of the songs to be a bit like protest songs, the voices of the people that spoke up along the way, towards this future that we’re inevitably going to face.”

As with all Marrugeku shows, the collaborative team is a truly international affair. Movement is devised by the cast along with choreography by Pigram and Serge Aimé Coulibaly from Burkina Faso and Belgium. Dramaturg Hildegard de Vuyst is also from Belgium. The media designers, Sonal Jain and Mriganka Madhukaillya (Desire Machine Collective) are from Assam in India. And of course there are a range of Australian—Indigenous and non-indigenous—collaborators as well. Pigram says, “From its birth Marrugeku has been an intercultural company…working in Indigenous contexts and communities to help tell these stories and share this perspective. [It’s about] a reciprocity, learning from one another and sharing that through our art making. To have perspectives from Burkina Faso in Africa, from Belgium, from Assam in India…is really valuable in this particular show especially considering climate change is ultimately going to affect and is [already] affecting all of us across the world. And we feel the importance of finding these opportunities to share Aboriginal perspectives, as these ancient knowledge systems can be beneficial for all humankind. If we share these things, hopefully it leads to new ways of looking at them and maybe we have a chance to make a difference.”

Despite the future setting of Cut the Sky suggesting a pessimistic outcome, both Pigram and Mulligan seem to have an overall optimistic outlook. I ask Mulligan if he has hope that his message—the Aboriginal perspective—will get some traction in mainstream Australia. He responds, “There’s a saying: we’ve all been given the gift of mortality and having the gift of mortality we all have the ability to dream, and by dreaming and by saying these stories, through whatever medium, we’re able to…” Pigram continues the thought “…shift people, and find new ways to look at things rather than coming up against each other all the time. Edwin has often said [that there is] this soft way to tackle such a heavy issue with such conflicting opinions…to share this in a soft way so people can take it in and feel it and hopefully they can see the other way to look at things.”

realtime tv interview

realtime tv: Dalisa Pigram, Edwin Lee Mulligan, Marrugeku's Cut the Sky from RealTime on Vimeo.


Marrugeku, Cut the Sky, Perth International Arts Festival, 27 Feb-1 March, https://2015.perthfestival.com.au/; WOMADelaide, 7-8 March, http://womad.org; WA regional tour August 2015; European tour Oct/Nov 2015

RealTime issue #125 Feb-March 2015 pg. 21

© Gail Priest; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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