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RED DAWN. ENTER THE QUINKAN, AN ANCESTRAL SPIRIT. SLEEPERS WAKE WITH UNDULATING GESTURES. FEATURES OF THE LAND ARE FORMING, RIVERS FLOW, LIFE IS BEING CREATED. BIRDS SEEM TO FLUTTER INTO EXISTENCE. SNAKES SINUOUSLY WEAVE. THERE ARE PLUCKING AND GARNERING ACTIONS AS IF THERE IS A FRUITFUL ABUNDANCE. SIGNS ARE POTENT YOGA MUDRAS. SIMPLE ROBELIKE SKIRTS ODDLY EVOKE ANCIENT CRETE BUT THE COLOURS ARE UP COUNTRY, FAR NORTH QUEENSLAND RED, GREENS, OCHRES, DUSKY ROSE. THIS INDIGENOUS CONTEMPORARY DANCE WORK BY MARILYN MILLER IS BASED ON 12 DISTINCTIVE GESTURES PECULIAR TO THE COMMUNITY INHABITING MILLER’S OWN COUNTRY IN THE CAIRNS REGION. LATER THESE GESTURES METAMORPHOSE TO EXPRESS CLASSICAL THEMES OF CONFLICT, LOSS, LOVE AND RESTITUTIVE HARMONY.

Miller simultaneously explores the connections between the physical and spiritual worlds and the struggle between women and men in the creation of a matriarchal order. Her choreographic imagination is fertile and schematically inventive, even raunchy. She is particularly good at distilling dramatic moments which illuminate desire, sorrow and community celebration. The strongest image is of the tribal matriarch ‘gathering in’, healing in her hoop-like gesture the hole in the world. Romano Crivici’s supportive electronic score sensitively incorporates Indigenous elements to fulfill Miller’s requirement of a classically conceived musical composition.

Special guest, Northern Territory dancer Gary Lang endows the Quinkan spirit with a captivatingly vibrant and dangerous masculine edge. Lang is matched by the matriarch, Fiona Doyle, whose austere good looks are strikingly pharaonic in context. Doyle’s self-possessed, immensely grounded female authority anchors this piece. The rest of the ensemble is likewise compelling to look at, with the ability to be individually present in contradistinction to the neutral stance of much modern dance. There is some hesitancy from less experienced cast members in this still developing work. The performers’ energy carries the audience with it. In this respect, as the publicity for Quinkan states, “dance and life are one and the same.” This is a reorientation of the usual audience expectations. The work is, after all, a celebration as much as an art event. The crux of the narrative involves a conflict couched in gender terms between ancestral spirits who seem as pesky as the Greek gods and human beings subject to mortal frailties. The double perspective enables Miller to comment definitively on female strengths while at the same time relishing in her evenhanded presentation of undiluted male energy.

Miller has a wide-ranging background in dance, theatre and film. This proclivity for work in different media accompanies a largeness of vision and her own take on the Indigenous presence in the arts which, as exemplified in Quinkan, I find enticing and exhilarating. Elsewhere she has commented on the diversity of over 200 Indigenous languages and dance styles and makes the point that she sees Indigenous dance “as potentially providing an Australian dance vocabulary.” Quinkan marvelously points in this direction and makes sense of her remarks before the show about why she had wanted a classical dance score. It is as if there was created in this blend—an interpenetration of contemporary dance, classical music and Indigenous content conveyed through specific gestural language—an alternative, Utopian history. Europeans are here welcomed to the land and initiated into a properly timeless respect for the unique nature of the continent and the subtleties of its Indigenous culture. Miller’s artistic intervention is a generous gift to the colonisers, an opportunity to be taken up, a beautifully democratic quid pro quo countering the oftentimes paternalistic overtones of other sorts of interventions at large. To the extent that she has so exuberantly realised her vision, a vision without boundaries, Miller seems, in a broad political context, to be fulfilling Gramsci’s prescription for combining pessimism of the intellect with optimism of the will. In a word, her work is heartening.

The rehearsal room venue for Quinkan was somewhat spacially inhibiting for the scope of the work, so I look forward to seeing a fully realised production at the Festival of The Dreaming at Woodford in June.


Quinkan, choreographer Marilyn Miller, performers Gary Lang, Fiona Doyle, Darren Edwards, Jeanette Fabila, Tamara Forester, Rita Pryce, Hannah Scanlon, Ian Colless, composer Romano Crvici, rehearsal director Gary Lang; Judith Wright Centre for the Performing Arts, May 22

RealTime issue #85 June-July 2008 pg. 35

© Doug Leonard; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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