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 Antonia Djiagween, Owen Maher, Seramsah Bin Saad, Trevor Jamieson and Dalsia Pigram, Burning Daylight, Marrugeku Antonia Djiagween, Owen Maher, Seramsah Bin Saad, Trevor Jamieson and Dalsia Pigram, Burning Daylight, Marrugeku
photo Rod Hartvigsen
THE TITLE OF MARRUGEKU’S LATEST WORK, BURNING DAYLIGHT, SEEMS ON THE SURFACE A CONTRARY CHOICE. THE SHOW CONJURES A NIGHT-TIME BROOME AND ITS DENIZENS—YOUNG PEOPLE AT A LOOSE END AFTER BEING EXPELLED FROM A BAR AND VISITED ON THE STREET BY UNWELCOME GHOSTS FROM THE TOWN’S PAST. WITH ALL THE EASE OF A HOLLYWOOD OR BOLLYWOOD MUSICAL, BURNING DAYLIGHT’S NIGHT PEOPLE SLIP INTO SONG AND DANCE WITH EVER GROWING PASSION, AS IF SUPPLANTING TIME-FILLING WITH AN UNCONSCIOUS QUEST TO FULFIL SOME DEEP, UNSPEAKABLE NEED. THIS IS NIGHT WORK.

Marrugeku’s Broome fantasia is intensified by a design that is a self-consciously stagey abstraction of the town (inspired in part, says a program note, by Tracey Moffat’s films Night Cries and Bedevil) and by the use of the back wall of the bar and a large billboard as projection screens, often worked simultaneously. A large, semi-circular performance area is ringed by the bar, a road leading into the distance and lined with striking boab trees, a tin shed inhabited by musicians and a park bench beneath a pole—which of course must be climbed and swung from in the time-honoured manner of musicals.

The screens evoke the open-air cinemas of tropical towns, the films mimic 40s and 50s B-grade melodramas from Hollywood’s dream factory, while the accompanying karaoke-style singing to the onscreen lyics suggests the present—though the songs hark back to romantic balladry—and the popular fantasy of being a great singer (they’re very good in this show). This is dream work.

Burning Daylight doesn’t delineate a simple story—it’s played out as a street concert-cum-musical (a relative of Les Ballets C de la B’s rooftop party, Iets Op Bach, 1999). This makes the performance all the more dream-like, the floating structure allowing for an immersive historical layering that merges three generations. The films, for example, include photographs from early 20th century Broome, 40s-ish movie recreations of that earlier period and contemporary karaoke sung live. Here the stage performers appear as their grandparents of a century ago. This collapsing of time and condensing of generations is the stuff of dreams but a deft means to engender a sense of history and inheritance.

Burning Dayight in Zurich 2007, Marrugeku Burning Dayight in Zurich 2007, Marrugeku
photo Christian Altorfer
After their expulsion onto the street, the night dwellers’ tensions and reveries are interrupted by the arrival of a black, whip-cracking cowboy (Trevor Jamieson) dressed in red and prancing like a warrior. He provokes immediate wariness, then confrontation, later attraction and then does battle with the ghost of a geisha (Yumi Umiumare). Either the cowboy is a ghost himself or his arrival has unleashed the past into the present; something is being worked through. The unfolding, largely danced, impressionistic interplay between the townspeople and the stranger is interpolated with the films and their karaoke accompaniment. These are central to Burning Daylight and are based on real events in Broome’s history.

In the first of the three films, Stir Fry (“She was a caged bird in a foreign land. He was a lonesome cowboy. Could he set her free?”), after being struck by her cowboy boyfriend, a Broome geisha elopes at night with another man—dressed in red and perhaps the father of the onstage red cowboy. He is killed by the boyfriend in a shootout. A small boy, whom we presume to be the son of the geisha and her lover, grimly watches his mother place flowers on the lover’s grave. A long stick hangs from the boy’s hand—precursor perhaps to the whip we see wielded by the grown man on stage. The second film, Black Pearl (“Can Love Beat the Law?”) depicts a jealous white bar owner betraying an Aboriginal employee to the police for having an affair with a white man. The woman and her children are removed to a reserve. (A newspaper spinning onscreen is headlined, “Native Woman Entraps White Man: Woman Removed For Her Own Good.”) In the final scene in this film, a small boy dressed in red as a cowboy, steps out from behind a shed and aims his toy gun at the policemen. In the third film, Troubled Water (“They Dared To Cross The Colour Line”) a Malay man married to an Aboriginal woman goes to work on a pearl rigger but is deported when he returns to port, never to see his family again. The son ties his father’s abandoned red bandana around his head.

Jamieson’s cowboy, as the child of an era in which white law not only oppressed Aboriginal people but gave licence for cultural groups to turn on each other, appears then to embody all the accumulated wrongs, despair and anger that unconsciously haunt Broome’s psyche. Yet, like Broome itself and its night dwellers, troubled yet richly creative, the cowboy is an ambiguous figure—a winking, narcissistic charmer, undeterred by his poor reception, hanging out as if expecting sooner or later to fit in, and providing moments of emotional support. Burning Daylight’s choreography resonates with this ambiguity as Jamieson slips in and out of group dancing, withdrawing to observe or suddenly displaying intimacy. The cowboy is reminiscent of the classic trickster, a wicked messenger, bringing the unwanted unconscious to attention.

I’m unravelling and reassembling my dreamlike recollections of the show, and my account of the role and purpose of the cowboy is possibly obvious or wrong (the companion book to the production has varying accounts), although the continuity inherent in the red motif associated with the boy children in the film and the cowboy seems undeniable. What is not clear is why the geisha ghost appears vengeful, forcing the cowboy to engage in a gloriously sustained battle, compelling the night community to join in. Perhaps hers is dis- or mis-placed anger for blighted lives. Certainly the cowboy’s recollection of her seems fond: he places the very same flowers on her grave, upstage, that she placed on her dead lover’s in the film as the scowling child looked on.

If Burning Daylight relies for much of its magic and meaning on the dreamy indeterminancy engendered by the overlaying of historical periods and interplay of artforms and images in a night time reverie, it risks opacity by being less than clear in a key area—the narrative you’re having when you’re not having a narrative. As well, it was easy to miss significant clues because each of the three films actually comprises two discrete versions shown simultaneously on the two stage screens. While this ‘splitting’ again heightens the sense of dream it also undercuts the revelatory transparency the work otherwise achieves. This was compounded, though to a lesser degree, by cast changes that meant characters in the films were played by others on stage; of course that can’t be helped.

Post-show queryings aside, the immediate experience of Burning Daylight was deeply enjoyable. The meticulously crafted film mini-melodramas were indicative of the way the production worked its magic, managing to be at once amusingly parodic and deeply affecting, embracing its audience with popular song and dance forms put to complex purpose. This integrative approach was highly evident in the distinctive choreography, an ever shifting synthesis of modern dance and traditional Aboriginal dance, hip hop, gymnastics, Japanese dance, club moves, martial arts and elements of the African dance of co-choreographer Serge Aime Coulibaly, performed with commitment and confidence. In the DVD that comes with the book of the show, co-choreographer Dalisa Pigram speaks of the challenge of ‘staging’ Aboriginal dance: “Our dance is small, [Serge’s] is so big.” Other than moments when there appeared to be a desire to fill the stage and the dancing could have been more focused, the balance seemed about right. Most exciting was the sense of an emerging, characterful choreographic language, rich in detail, unusual shapes and gestures.

Jamieson, Pigram and Uniumare excelled in solo passages in their very different ways. The latter two absorbed a great length of orange roadworks mesh into their performances—Pigram boldly cartwheeling with it, Umiumare wrapping herself up as a bizarre living sculpture—both expressing, true to the spirit of the show, the creative capacity to take whatever is at hand into their art. Pigram’s solo, performed to Jamieson singing the Pigram Brothers’ “Dear Alistair” (as close as the show gets to referring to the local native title claim), is a central moment in Burning Daylight, expressing intense emotional connection to land and family, in which the release from the plastic mesh, perhaps emblematic of both progress and constraint, seems almost cathartic.

The final collective dance performed to rapper Dazastah’s melancholic, addictive Ikebana Tango (“How come me,/ The past come to haunt my soul,/ How come me,/ The past come to call my soul,/ How come me,/ The past come to taunt my soul/ wanna take me home and won’t let me go”) sustains the sense of a haunting for which there can be no easy exorcism. The night work, the work of dreams is not finished. The dancing however seems more optimistic in its pairings of past and present, its sense of youthful communal strength and, not least, a shared, unique artistry. Burning Daylight is an engrossing entertainment from a skilled, charismatic cast, members of an inventive collaborative team producing a complex work in which a rich culture engages recuparatively with its past.


Marrugeku, Burning Daylight, concept Rachael Swain, Dalisa Pigram, director Rachael Swain, co-choreographers Serge Aime Coulibaly, Dalisa Pigram, performers, devisors Trevor Jamieson, Dalisa Pigram, Kathy Cogill, Owen Maher, Sermsah Bin Saad, Antonia Djiagween, Yumi Umiumare, designer Joey Ruigrok van der Werven, film director, cinematographer Warwick Thornton, dramaturgy, Josephine Wilson, David Pledger, John Baylis, costume designer Stephen Curtis, lighting designer Geoff Cobham, musical director Matthew Fargher, karaoke songs by Amanda Brown, musicians Dazastah, Lorrae Coffin, Justin Gray; CarriageWorks, Sydney, Nov 11–14

RealTime issue #94 Dec-Jan 2009 pg. 33

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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