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indigenous performance feature


between past & present, joy & danger

keith gallasch: Ngurrumilmarrmiriyu (wrong skin), spring dance, sydney opera house


Ngurrumilmarrmiriyu (Wrong Skin), Chooky Dancers Ngurrumilmarrmiriyu (Wrong Skin), Chooky Dancers
photo Matt Nettheim, image courtesy Performing Lines
WHETHER IN THE CREATIONS OF BANGARRA DANCE THEATRE OR MARRUGEKU OR HERE IN THE CHOOKY DANCERS’ NGURRUMILMARRMIRIYU (WRONG SKIN) AT THE SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE SPRING DANCE FESTIVAL, THERE’S A RECURRENT, RESTLESS, CHURNING DIALECTIC AT WORK, SEEKING TO BRING THE PAST INTO A DYNAMIC RELATIONSHIP WITH THE PRESENT—IN ARTISTIC ACTS OF RESTORATION, CONTRIBUTIONS TO SELF-UNDERSTANDING AND POSSIBLE RECONCILIATION BETWEEN INDIGENOUS AND WESTERN CULTURES.

While Bangarra is an independent Indigenous company that works with white collaborators on set and lighting design, Marrugeku and the Chooky Dancers’ Wrong Skin (and, interestingly, the film Ten Canoes) structurally replicate the cultural dynamic of Aboriginal and non-aboriginal collaboration—an evolved, shared black and white artistic direction of Marrugeku and with Wrong Skin a collaboration between Elcho Island people (the island is off north-eastern Arnhemland), writer-director Nigel Jamieson and other white collaborators.

After seeing Wrong Skin at this year’s Adelaide Festival, Carl Nilsson-Polias wrote in “Dialectical entanglements” (RT97) that he admired it as “a brilliant populist work.” However he felt that although the use of “the complex Yolngu moiety laws as the basis for a forbidden-love story, with overt references to West Side Story along the way [gives Jamieson] a straightforward narrative hook on which to hang various dance sequences and video montages of life on Elcho Island…it also imposes a stifling rhythm on proceedings and created a strange tension: are the performers co-creators or merely the subjects of the work? Occasionally, it even reveals the technical shortcomings of the dancers when they are required to step out of their own style.”

Wrong Skin is a hugely enjoyable creation, at its best in its dancing, its sense of humour and dexterous multimedia realisation. But there is no denying that the work’s embracing buoyancy evaporates towards the end as the love tragedy is acted out conventionally (which is not to say that the actors are inadequate). It seems a curious modus operandi given the radicalism of the Chooky Dancers’ cultural collaging that underpins much of the work alongside the multimedia layering of live performance and film. Another form of telling might have been more apt, and more palpably belonging to the performer co-creators.

These concerns aside, Wrong Skin succeeded on other fronts. The dancing ranged from the Chooky Dancers’ famous YouTube take on Zorba’s Dance to Bollywood and Hollywood inflected routines (developed with choreographer Gavin Robbins). These were performed on red earth rising in clouds and with more detail, speed, articulation and overall shaping than I’d anticipated—there’s much more than energy and charisma at work here.

The Chooky Dancers’ performance gained unexpected additional complexity when the large screen behind the performers revealed footage of the Elcho Island community, especially children, dancing furiously. Here is culture where pop, Bollywood and Hollywood and more exotic musics (Turkish, Arabic) are a part of everyday life. Suddenly we knew that the Chooky Dancers were not a one-off, a bunch of young men with a show to get on, but of their culture, absorbing and integrating forms that they like. The dark side is, of course, modernisation that plays havoc with kinship constraints.

There were other surprises, even shocks. In particular, we witnessed on film the funeral ceremony of an elder—his body in an open casket, a huge community gathering and, in its midst, a woman hurling herself repeatedly to the ground in grief. There was no way to avoid feeling like an intruder, especially since we are used to Aboriginal constraints on naming the dead, seeing images of or hearing them in the media, let alone witnessing something like this. But the Elcho Island community collaborated on Wrong Skin and one of the show’s island producers, Margaret Garawirrtya, told a post-show reception that the man, her husband, had been a key instigator of Wrong Skin and that the show was presented in “the memory of Frank, ‘the father of music’ in north-eastern Arnhem Land.”

Moments like these, alongside images of poverty and objections to the ‘Intervention’ were juxtaposed with happier representations of home and community and a playful embrace of the modern in routines with portable DVD screens and supermarket trolleys given low-budget Busby Berkeley treatment. The mobile phone in the plot proves a more problematic indicator of cultural stress when it comes to the issue of keeping people apart in the name of tradition.

The great strength of Wrong Skin is that it draws on the Chooky Dancers’ joyous integration of tradition and modernity, multiplying it with a range of media and performative means, revealing both its enormous creative potential but also delineating its impediments and pointing to what might be lost. Wrong Skin’s ending—a death, love thwarted, a community divided—suggests that the Chooky Dancers’ synthesis of tradition and the new is but one celebratory part of something much more difficult to resolve.


Ngurrumilmarrmiriyu (Wrong Skin), writer, director, designer Nigel Jamieson in association with the company, associate director, movement Gavin Robbins, associate director, community and cultural liaison Joshua Bond, costumes Mathew McCall, film & video design Scott Anderson, video production Mic Gruchy, lighting Trudy Dalgleish, composition, sound design David Page, Basil Hogios; ?performers Djakapurra Munyarrun, Djali Donald Ganambarr, Frances Djulibing, Rarriwuy Hick, Anthony Djamangi, Lionel Dhulmanawuy, Anthony Djamangi; Chooky Dancers: Aaron Djimilkinya, Daren Matan, Nathan Guymangura, Gerald Dhamarrandji, Wakara Gondarra; Spring Dance, Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, Sept 2-12

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 6

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

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