Review: Ngurrumilmarrmiriyu (Wrong Skin) ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Review: Ngurrumilmarrmiriyu (Wrong Skin)

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that this review contains the name of a deceased person.

Many people will have first encountered the Chooky Dancers on YouTube. Their hilariously unlikely Yolngu version of Zorba the Greek became a viral hit, scoring 1.5 million viewers.

They come from Elcho Island (Galiwin’ku), which is north east of Arnhemland. They live in a poverty which ought to make all Australians ashamed: 25 people share a house where the wiring is falling out of the walls, and where there is often not enough food to ensure that people do not go hungry. People die every week from the many complications of poverty: as if to illustrate this, Frank Garawirrtja, the mentor behind the Chooky Dancers and the Wrong Skin project, died during the process of making the show. Wrong Skin in fact features footage from his funeral.

In 2007, the Howard Government launched the aggressive military intervention policy, which was imposed without consultation with the communities involved. This paternalism - continued under Labor - was supposedly to combat Indigenous deprivation, but its effect has only been to further disenfranchise an already scandalously deprived community. As many community leaders have protested, their rights have been taken away, and many claim it's part of a larger policy to extinguish land rights and Indigenous culture.

Nigel Jamieson canvasses all these issues in Wrong Skin. It's a show that emerges from a community little understood in wider Australia, and like Honour Bound - Jamieson's physical theatre piece about the Guantanamo Bay prisoner David Hicks - it is driven by a profound political anger. But what you come away with is a vital joyousness, the rebellious humour and resilience of the Yolngu people, that shows the other side of the doom-laden headlines. Indigneous people have often responded to their situations with subversive humour, and the Chooky Dancers are no exception.

This is a difficult show to write about, not least because it requires complicated explanation that the show itself manages to eschew, reaching into the immediacy and vitality of performance to make its various points. Jamieson has put together a multimedia spectacular that enacts the cultural contradictions of contemporary globalism, where Yolgnu in one of the most remote regions of Australia download Bollywood and hiphop to their mobile phones and cheerfully appropriate Singin' in the Rain into traditional dance. The whole is strung together by a simple Romeo and Juliet story of forbidden love between Yolgnu of the same Yirridja moiety (a relationship which is strictly forbidden), illustrating the tensions between western ideas of individual freedom and traditional law.

Very little of the narration is in English (English hasn't been taught in remote schools since the 1970s, and many Yolgnu don't speak it)*. But the action, assisted by some miraculous use of multi-media, is crystal clear. The dancers each introduce themselves, identifying their clans and moieties, and then introduce the story. The rest is a kind of patchwork of song and dance and film, woven together to enact a mimesis of life on Elcho Island: its sorrows and imprisonments - which are starkly demonstrated - and its delights - dance, fishing, play.

To the European mind, the complexities of kinship in Indigenous society is mind-boggling. Skin names or moieties and clan affiliations govern your language, your totem, your clan and every aspect of social interaction with other people and with the land. Your skin name determines who you can marry, and who you are forbidden to even speak to. To complicate things further, the cyclical kinship patterns mean that your great-grandmother can be your child, and your great-grandchild your mother.

Take, for example, the term "Yolngu". Yolngu means "person", and can mean someone specifically from East Arnhemland, or simply an Aboriginal person. The term Yolngu Matha covers the more than 100 languages spoken by the clans of East Arnhemland. According to anthropologist Emma Kowel, Yolngu inherit their language from their father, but adults generally speak at least five languages, and often understand 15 or more. In short, to understand what any 10-year-old Yolngu knows is a life-time study for an outsider. I can't quite get my head around this stuff: this is a culture that challenges basic western notions of possession and relationship, and which blurs together into a holistic and collective world view concepts that in western traditions are clearly distinguished from each other.

Jamieson employs all the resources of the stage to communicate some of this complexity, and along the way creates spectacular theatre. There are extraordinarily beautiful scenes which seamlessly meld film and live performance, such as those set in the actual home of the Chooky Dancers. The camera climbs up the rotting steps, enters the dark hallways, lingers over the holes in the walls, and wakes up the boys, who rise from the stage floor, turn on the tv to see a Bollywood film - which they turn into their own dance routine (something really to be seen). The result is a powerful mixture of documentary realism and the joyous celebration of live performance.

Perhaps the real triumph of Wrong Skin is how it opens a small window on this world, while managing to avoid the falsities of worthiness or patronisation. Being there is a delight: the sheer exuberance of the young dancers carries the day. Its tragedy is enacted lucidly, although it occurs outside the cultural referents I understand; and the whole show powerfully reveals the beauty of this ancient culture, its adaptiveness and curiosity, while unsparingly showing the conditions in which it survives. I liked too how the process of making this work - clearly a complex and difficult one - is folded into the work itself. Not to be missed.

Top: The Chooky Dancers on YouTube. Bottom: The Chooky Dancers in Wrong Skin. Photo: Matt Nettheim

Ngurrumilmarrmiriyu (Wrong Skin), written, directed and designed by Nigel Jamieson in association with the company. Associate director/movement, Gavin Robins; associate director/community and cultural liaison Joshua Bond; costumes by Mathew McCall; film and video design by Scott Anderson, video production by Mic Gruchy, lighting designer Trudy Dalgleish, composition and sound design David Page and Basil Hogios, film footage by Gavin Robins, Scott Anderson, Alan Dowler and Nigel Jamieson. Malthouse Theatre until March 28.

Performers: Djakapurra Munyarrun, Djali Donald Ganambarr, Frances Djulibing, Rarriwuy Hick, Anthony Djamangi, Lionel Dhulmanawuy and Anthony Djamangi.

Chooky Dancers: Aaron Djimilkinya, Daren Matan, Nathan Guymangura, Gerald Dhamarrandji and Wakara Gondarra.

*See Mark Lawrence's comment below for a correction.


Mark Lawrence said...

What a brilliant review, Alison. So insightful, and it makes me want to see the work. I read a great piece in The Age a little while back about the performance and the white creatives who worked with the Chooky Dancers to develop it - a great example of partnerships in creativity between Aboriginal and white artists/performers.

BTW, a correction: you comment that 'English hasn't been taught in remote schools since the 1970s, and most Yolgnu don't speak it' - is not correct. As you point out, Yolngu may speak a number of languages, with Yolngu Matha group being the most widely spoken, and a number of other Aboriginal languages as well, and then Aboriginal English, and possibly then Standard English, may be their 3rd, 4th or even 5th languages. Standard English may not be spoken fluently, but it is still spoken in Yolngu communities.

Of course, my comments are generalisations, as the Yolngu people on Elcho Island have their differences from communities in other parts of Arnhem Land.

On the issue of teaching English in remote schools, that's not correct either. English is taught in remote Aboriginal schools, and many Aboriginal communities have been trying to support and promote the teaching of their own languages and culture to their children through what have been called 'bilingual' schools, but recent NT government policies (and the push by the feds for kids for whom English is a 4th or 5th language to match or catch up with the literacy levels in the rest of Australia) have really threatened the viability of such education and the opportunities for children to learn their own language AS WELL AS English.

ABC's 4 Corners had a brilliant doco on the bilingual education issue in NT late last year.

Perhaps the issue of the Narration of Wrong Skin in Yolngu is less about the capacity of Yolngu to be fluent in English (which it may just as well be), but more about Yolngu performers and art creators being completely unapologetic about creating a Yolngu performance, albeit one that hybridises and coopts global popular culture.

Just as Ten Canoes did, this performance challenges English-speaking audiences to realise that there are whole other worlds of culture, performance, art and creativity in our own country, and as you so rightly point out, 'opens a small window on this world'.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, Mark, for that clarification. I picked that fact up somewhere - I can't remember where now - and it's true that the Chooky Dancers themselves speak very minimal English.

I didn't, however, mean to imply that their not speaking English in the show was any kind of, well, disability. I quite agree on your point about the creators being unapologetic about making a work on their terms, not ours, and it's one of the great strengths of the show.

Anonymous said...

I'd love to see this. Any chance it will be made into a movie... or travel to the U.S.?

Looks amazing!