Two nights before I saw the third and final instalment of DanceX, presented by the Australian Ballet, a juvenile Bar-tailed Godwit set the world record for continuous flight, flying 13,560km (8,435 miles) from Alaska to Tasmania.1 Satellite tag number 234684 completed their marathon voyage in 11 days. By shrinking their internal organs to make room for fat stores, Bar-tailed Godwits are astonishing.
In Yawaru language, this migratory bird has another name, and one that suits them beautifully: Gunwayi. In Broome, the Gunwayi, as Dalisa Pigram explained, is a calling bird that tells you that the tide is turning, if you know how to listen. When fishing, and in life: failure to heed their warning is to drown. When fishing, and in life: take only what you need; don’t be greedy.
Marrugeku, led by co-artistic directors, choreographer and dancer Pigram and director and dramaturg Rachael Swain, presented “Gudirr Gudirr” at DanceX Part Three at the Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne. Not unlike the shorebirds’ migration, “Gudirr Gudirr” has been performed extensively since its premiere in 2013 as part of Dance Massive. However this work derived its name from parallels that Marrugeku’s concept and cultural advisor Patrick Dodson saw between the bird and the devastating effect of colonisation today.2 As Dodson described, “The Guwayi bird flies very low across the intertidal area to warn people out on the reef that the tide is coming in. . . .The Guwayi bird does not tell lies. . . .The warning sign from the Guwayi bird can go one of two ways. We are either going to drown because we are not reading the signs of our disempowerment, or we will hear the warnings and we will take steps.”
As the sounds of the Guwayi bird filled the theatre, “Gudirr Gudirr” called “to a community facing massive industrialisation on traditional lands, loss of language and major gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous wellbeing.”3 Behind Pigram, words from a 1928 historical report are projected upon a screen, but it is historical by date of publication only. This isn’t about a racist past; this is ongoing. This is now. Typified by Pigram’s powerful narration to “the time is now.” Yawaru language needed to find a word for ‘suicide.’4
Drawing upon her Asian-Indigenous identity, Pigram’s journey to keep language alive through her community work was also within every fibre of the performance that received a standing ovation on opening night. Dodson sees Pigram, too, as “that bird, signalling that if we don’t get our act together to pass on that knowledge we could soon lose it.”
Keeping knowledge alive through place and embodiment was embedded in Australian Dance Theatre’s performance of Daniel Riley’s “The Third.” Every movement confirmed that with knowledge comes the passing on of knowledge, the transmitting of information that connects us. As Margo Neale, whose book Songlines: The Power and Promise inspired the idea of a third archive,5 explained, “We’re still here . . . and it’s because of the way we live with the land. Despite the onslaught of colonialism, Indigenous values are so deeply-rooted and strong.”
Chunky Move’s “AB_TA_Response,” commissioned by the Australian Ballet, (‘AB,’) with the ‘TA’ in reference to Antony Hamilton’s 2019 work, “Token Armies” moved the conversation from connection to place to how we respond to the built environment. Alice Topp’s “Solstice” and Lucas Jervies’s “Imposter” followed suit, but changed the direction once more. With the stage stripped bare, the emphasis was the performers, Samara Merrick and Jake Mangakahia, and in “Imposter”, a quartet of violinists Zoe Black, Sophia Kirsanova, Jenny Khafagi and Sulki Yu who pulled the limbs of Joseph Caley, Elijah Trevitt, Sharni Spencer, Jasmin Durham, Jill Ogai, Isobelle Dashwood et al. as if they were the most complex of puppets.
Working with the dancers, Topp’s “Solstice” became a conversation that melded the sun of the first part of the word ‘sol’ to the ‘stand still’ moment that happens twice a year to tender effect. Merrick and Mangakahia cast a glow on only that which was absolutely necessary, and moved as if the sun was in their limbs. A hemispheric shift in a handful of minutes. Open your heart, the repeated refrain.
Open your ears. Don’t miss the call. These stories, all, are to be shared.
- Graham Readfearn, ‘Bar-tailed godwit sets world record with 13,560km continuous flight from Alaska to southern Australia’, The Guardian, October 27, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/oct/27/bar-tailed-godwit-sets-world-record-with-13560km-continuous-flight-from-alaska-to-southern-australia, accessed October 30, 2022.
- See “Annual Report of the Chief Protector of Aborigines for Year ending 30th June, 1928,” for example, https://aiatsis.gov.au/sites/default/files/docs/digitised_collections/remove/73719.pdf, accessed October 30, 2022.
- “Gudirr Gudirr” synopsis, Marrugeku, https://www.marrugeku.com.au/productions/gudirr-gudirr/, accessed October 30, 2022.
- “Suicide was unknown to Aboriginal people prior to invasion. Appalling living conditions and past traumas have led to a suicide rate that by far exceeds that of non-Aboriginal people.” ‘Aboriginal suicide rates’, Creative Spirits, https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/people/aboriginal-suicide-rates, accessed October 30, 2022.
- Daniel Riley in conversation with Andrew Westle, Delving Into Dance podcast, https://www.delvingintodance.com/podcast/daniel-riley2, accessed October 30, 2022.