At the end of Kuramanunya, performer and choreographer Thomas ES Kelly – a Minjungbal-Yugambeh, Wiradjuri and Ni-Vanuatu man – steps forward to directly address the audience.
After almost an hour in which Kelly has been the only physical body on stage – where he’s switched relentlessly and seamlessly between conversational, magnetic, intensely embodied, and harrowing presences – he seems to shake himself loose. He tells the audience that Kuramanunya has been “a ceremony for those who didn’t get their ceremony”.
This pattern, where Kelly creates a feeling world with his movement and gives context with his voice, is the structure that has underpinned the entire performance.
Throughout Kuramanunya, Kelly’s dance acts as a call for the audience to engage, to be curious. His choreography, which often builds slowly from a handful of movements, combines with pulsing sound design by Samuel Pankhurst and Jhindu-Pedro Lawrie and highly effective lighting to create immersive sequences. In a few powerful moments, all the elements of stagecraft blend to create mesmerising images, in which the distinction between Kelly, moving with controlled strength, and his static surrounds, seems to dissolve.
Between movement sequences, Kelly speaks in dialogue with his ancestors. Careful scripting loads these scenes with descriptions to help audience members unfamiliar with the rhetoric of Kelly’s movements to interpret what they were seeing. Talking through his process for making ochre, he performs gestures that form the foundation of his next set of choreography. Introducing his family connections, he gently re-animates an earlier sequence, demonstrating which movements reference which family member.
The transition between these two modes of performance are difficult to manage, and the company still has work to do in smoothing these as they prepare for their premiere season. Further development of the soundscape, staging and lighting will add nuance to what is currently a repetitive pattern. It’s also worth noting that there will always be work for some audience members to do here, too. The shifts could be considered jarring by some, but this work, which generously seeks to make elements of the first and still-evolving movement languages of this land accessible to all, deserves to be met with reciprocal energy.
Importantly, there are also elements of the choreographic world that are allowed to remain solely emotive. At the end of each sequence, Kelly’s body is distorted by a terrifying force that takes different forms, but is always equally violent and intense.
Kelly never directly references these movements in his dialogue, but he does speak of the severing of lineages, of genocide, of the ways in which colonisation not only brings death but also denies the essentials of life and death, including ceremony.
In its legibility, but also in its moments of pure feeling, Kuramanunya is a deeply unselfish invitation to not only witness, but be a part of, something immensely powerful.
Kuramanunya is playing at The Tanja Liedtke Studio at Odeon Theatre until March 4.
Read more 2023 Adelaide Fringe stories and reviews on InReview here.
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