Wiradjuri man Daniel Riley has made history as the first Indigenous director of a non-Indigenous Australian dance company. Long overdue, perhaps, but no less timely during this period of epochal upheaval that demands an examination and dismantling of the status quo. It requires a vision that transcends barriers to mutual understanding and sharing of knowledge, an arbitrator who can bring together past and present to find a new future in a new Australia that draws upon the 75,000-year-old knowledge carried in the land, in the stories, songs and bodies of its Traditional Owners.
Two dancers, in clothes the colour of river boulders, lie curled on a darkened, blue-lit stage. The sound of water flowing gives way to a portentous rumbling soundscape, and as if woken by some tremor deep in the earth, the boulders come to life, unfolding, limbs twitching and glitching as if driven by some external, unseen force.
A skein of blue thread is unwound and drawn across the floor, the eternal flow of water marking the passing of time, and the remaining four dancers of the company join the others, sliding, rolling and waving across the floor along with the blue thread, as if riding the currents of the fresh water rivers that flow through the Country of Barkindji woman Adrianne Semmens’ ancestors. They merge in flow, slide over one another, then break apart; hints of a disturbance in what-always-was are marked by sudden changes of light from blue to gold and the contrast between the soft-wave movements and sharp twitchings of limbs.
A reminder that choreographer Semmens’ view of these fresh waters is from where she now resides – in saltwater Kaurna Country – comes with the melancholic figure of Zachary Lopez, crawling across the stage like William Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar, weeping trails of salt from the white mound on his back. This is the first of the three works that make up Outside Within, a re-working by Semmens of her 2021 work, Immerse.
There is a moment’s breath before an audio-visual projection of mulumna – Inside Within lights up a backdrop of opaque corrugated plastic sheeting. The industrial texturing of the screen adds a sense of edge and urgency to the moving images, the sheeting performing the additional role of disguising the salt trail remaining on the stage floor from the previous segment, removing the need to sweep it away.
Riley’s piece, mulumna, commissioned by RISING: Melbourne in 2021, alternates between views of Western and First Nations archives. In the projection, Riley embodies the distress at the requisitioning of cultural objects as he moves through the dark, narrow corridors of the archives of a museum.
He runs as if searching for escape, then, searching for something – until he comes across a badhawal (hunting boomerang). Object as portal, it returns him, together with his young son Archie, to the great open spaces where Country and those who live with it are infused with an ancient archive holding 75,000 years of knowledge. After a solemn exchange of knowledge of father to son, the badhawal is returned, carried with a new spirit, to the archives of a New Australia.
The images fade and are replaced by a strip of harsh, industrial lighting for the final piece in the triptych: Riley’s The Third, which seeks to extend the concepts of mulumna.
Two dancers, dressed in loose shirts of red and white ochre, yellow clay, black charcoal and earth-coloured trousers, stand, disjointed, as if waiting for a subway train in the belly of an industrial city. There is a sense of electrification and disjointedness in the dancers’ flailing-limb movements, interspersed with moments of soft beauty that ease the tension; both evoke the movements made in Semmens’ piece earlier on, closing the circle of three and providing a glimpse of hope in a process of constant change.
This is no Pollyanna view of what we face in a country in need of healing, a time of adjustment that will likely bring necessary disruption before a new way of being can be found. The dancers gather into one softening and pulsing organism before breaking apart again, as if in warning that uniting diverse ways of being to find the solution will not be easy, but in the final moments, as the lights go down, one of the dancer steps forward to the front of the stage and reaches out with one hand towards the audience, as if to say: this is it, the rest is up to you.
Outside Within – comprising the works Immerse, mulunma – Inside Within and The Third – is being presented at the Odeon Theatre, Norwood, until May 13, after which is will tour to Port Pirie (May 16), Whyalla (May 19), Renmark (May 21), Mount Gambier (May 24), Golden Grove (May 27), the Barossa (June 2) and Noarlunga (June 4).
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.