Buŋgul celebrates the Yolŋgu culture underpinning the music of Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, and is performed by his family. (Supplied: Perth Festival/Toni Wilkinson)
When Perth Festival’s incoming artist director Iain Grandage announced that his first edition would open with a week of exclusively Indigenous work, it was a big deal: this has never been done before in Australia.
He says the idea came from a simple aim: to celebrate his home city and state.
“And if you’re going to start close to home, you start with the bedrock,” Grandage said.
As a composer and musician, Grandage has two-plus decades collaborating with Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists in works including opera (The Rabbits), musical theatre (Corrugation Road) and staged concerts (the Black Arm Band’s Dirtsong), theatre (Cloudstreet; The Secret River) and dance (Bangarra’s Dubboo).
“It’s not like he just decided to take on the flag when he became artistic director; he’s been walking the walk for a long time,” said Rachael Maza, who worked with Grandage as part of the Black Arm Band (and is currently artistic director of Melbourne’s Ilbijerri Theatre Company).
Kylie Bracknell speaking at the opening night of Hecate, which she adapted and directed. (Supplied: Perth Festival/Dana Weeks)
Many of Grandage’s former collaborators appear in this year’s Perth Festival — including Maza, and Western Australian Noongar writer, director, actor and language advocate Kylie Bracknell (Kaarljilba Kaardn), who accepted his invitation to join the programming team as Associate Artist.
The resulting program, which kicked off Friday, February 7, spanned from Bangarra Dance Theatre’s stunning, historically-informed work Bennelong (taking a victory lap after winning a staggering seven Helpmann Awards in 2018) to the colourful, anarchic contemporary art of Kimberley painter John Prince Siddon, the 30-year-old original “Aboriginal musical” Bran Nue Dae, the swagger-heavy hip hop of Briggs and his Bad Apples crew, and cross-cultural family comedy Black Ties, by Ilbijerri and New Zealand’s Te Rēhia Theatre.
Black Ties stars (L-R) Jack Charles, Dion Williams, Lisa Maza, Mark Coles Smith, Tuakoi Ohia and Lana Garland. (Supplied: Perth Festival)
At the vanguard of the program were two major commissions: Hecate, a version of Macbeth entirely in Noongar (local Indigenous) language, adapted and directed by Bracknell for Perth’s Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company; and Buŋgul, a showcase of Yolŋgu culture set to the music of Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, performed by his family and community alongside members of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra.
Growth in demand
Even a decade ago, Perth Festival’s 2020 opening week would have been unthinkable.
“Only 12 years ago, when I started [as artistic director of Ilbijerri] the saying at the time was ‘Yeah, it’s risky programming black works, you don’t get bums on seats’,” said Maza, co-director of Black Ties.
“So if festivals and theatre companies were going to program [your work], it would be the ‘risky piece’ that they were prepared to have a loss on.”
Cut to 2019, and the most produced playwright in Australia was Nakkiah Lui, with the combined power of her plays Black is the New White, Blackie Blackie Brown and How to Rule the World, and with sold-out seasons around the country.
For Perth Festival, ticket sales reveal a similar picture: Bennelong came just shy of selling out; Buŋgul sold out its three performances in Perth Concert Hall; Black Ties had sold out most of its shows at time of writing (following a sold-out Sydney Festival run in January).
“There has been a distinctive shift in this nation … there is a demand for the work,” Maza said.
Black Ties premiered in Sydney in January; after its Perth season it will transfer to Melbourne. (Supplied: Perth Festival/Jess Wyld)
“There has been this incredible, growing pool of presenters all around the country who are now contacting us saying ‘What have you got coming up?'”
All the Indigenous creatives I spoke to spoke of the importance of work made by mob, for mob — while acknowledging that the majority of people who see their shows are whitefellas.
Maza summarised the mood: “Yes, we’re making this for us, and we’re inviting you to come in and sit on the couch and watch. You might not get all the jokes, but you’re welcome.”
A perspective shift
For this whadjulla (whitefella), Perth Festival’s opening week was a joyful and profound experience.
It allowed for serendipitous moments and electrifying juxtapositions: on Friday night, the men of Buŋgul, still in ceremonial paint, joining Briggs on stage; on Saturday night, I wandered out of the all-male ceremony of Buŋgul straight into the Festival garden at the back of Perth Concert Hall, to find myself watching all-female teen choir Marliya performing their song cycle Spinifex Gum — a same-but-different celebration of cultural resilience.
Marliya is a group of young female Indigenous singers based in Cairns; they created the Spinifex Gum song cycle with Felix Riebl (of The Cat Empire). (Supplied: Perth Festival/Marnie Richardson)
Opening week also offered challenging moments for non-Indigenous (and particularly whadjulla) audiences, as we were exposed to different philosophies, cosmologies and ways of seeing the world; as we grappled with works in Indigenous languages we don’t know; and as we saw dominant (white) historical narratives refracted and exploded through a Black lens.
Often, I walked away from shows with a sense of how richer my life might be — and Australia might be — if we shared the Indigenous sense of connection to culture and country.
In numerous panel discussions and post-show Q&As, audiences seemed keen to listen and learn from cultures built on tens of thousands of years of living on this land that so many of us feel at odds with at the moment.
When the land was on fire one week and drowning the next, and the air toxic to breathe, we could all agree, surely, that — at the very least — we needed to listen to other ideas about how we might better coexist on this continent.
Buŋgul is inspired partly by Galiwinku (Elcho Island) off the coast of Arnhem Land in northern Australia, where Gurrumul was born. (Supplied: Perth Festival/Anna Reece)
Bangarra’s artistic director Stephen Page thinks we’re in a transitional period where people are leaning into “spirituality”.
“People want spirit. Last century was so physical, and [now] we’re in a psychological century,” he said.
Maza goes further: “This insane consumerism, this devouring, cancerous culture, all about money and greed — doesn’t actually work for anyone. It doesn’t make you happy. So maybe it’s not a coincidence that people are starting to want to listen to the people who have known how to live sustainably and in harmony with the planet for 120,000 years and beyond.”
Buŋgul: everything is connected
The Yolŋgu people of north east Arnhem Land have a kinship system connecting people, nature and spirit-beings that is mind-bogglingly intricate and impenetrable to an outsider, but ingrained in their children from their earliest years.
For example, everything in the Yolŋgu universe belongs to one of two ‘moieties’ — Dhuwa or Yirritja — and then there is a complex set of laws around how these things can and should relate to each other.
Family is not just a matter of blood — and not limited to humans.
Lore, and ceremony, are at the centre of everything — and not separated from art or the environment.
Buŋgul brings together Yolŋgu song, ceremony and art with the music of Gurrumul. (Supplied: Perth Festival/Toni Wilkinson)
As Yolŋgu elder Don Wininba Ganambarr (who co-directed Buŋgul with Nigel Jamieson) wrote in the program:
“Our songs, paintings and dances are our books — they tell us where we have come from and where we are going to. They follow the songlines that weave us together. They are our maps, our law books, our title deeds and our family history. They connect us to the land and to the animals with which we share it and of whom we are a part.”
This unique worldview is the underpinning for the vastly popular music of the late Gurrumul Yunupingu, aka Dr G.
In Buŋgul (named after the Yolŋgu word for dance-with-music), Dr G’s family from Elcho Island dance and sing the songlines of his grandmother and mother, interwoven with his own manikay (ancestral songs) and the soundtrack of his 2018 album Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow).
“We made this show specially, because when he [Dr G] was singing to the balanda [white] people, they would hear him singing but they don’t know what’s the meaning of his songs.” Wininba explained in a post-show Q&A session.
Buŋgul premiered at Sydney Festival; after Perth, it will travel to Adelaide Festival. (Supplied: Perth Festival/Toni Wilkinson)
Buŋgul’s producer Anna Reece (also the Executive Producer of Perth Festival) said the entire production was made under strict Yolŋgu law, which governed what should go in the show and in what order, how ceremony would be performed, and how the various creative team would work together.
“While audiences will see a small group of extraordinary men performing ceremony on stage, what is almost impossible to convey is that this work has been created by and is held together by an entire community of men, women and children,” Reece said.
“We are guided by Yolŋgu culture and law. In everything we do we are led by the Yolŋgu. And so it has taken the time it needed to take. No shortcuts.”
As head of the Gumatj clan (Dr G’s clan) Wininba was the ultimate boss — and his co-director had to defer to him.
Wininba explained later: “Every ceremony that you do, you will have to do it right; if you’re missing something, sometimes those old people [leaders] will get sick [and] when I go back home they’ll tell me ‘Oh there’s something that you did wrong, on your tour — or this painting is not right for this tour. I’ll be asked by my leaders.
“That’s why for this buŋgul, I did it the right way.”
Hecate: the power of language beyond words
On the Sunday night of the opening weekend, a couple of hundred people came together at the Subiaco Arts Centre to watch an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth performed by an entirely Noongar cast and in their language — with no subtitles.
It was the opening night of Hecate, named after Macbeth’s often overlooked ‘Queen of the Witches’ — who in this version of the story, stood for mother earth, and book-ended the play’s action with her calls to heal the sick land (or boodjar).
Della Rae Morrison (centre), who plays Hecate, is the co-founder of the Madjitil Moorna Choir, which performs Noongar songs. (Supplied: Perth Festival/Dana Weeks)
Hecate was the culmination of eight years of labour and many hopes and dreams for what this first-of-a-kind project (spawned by former Yirra Yaakin artistic director Kyle J Morrison) might achieve.
None of those hopes and dreams revolved around the whadjulla audience — and as one of those, I was aware that I was privy to something beyond my understanding.
It wasn’t just about the lack of subtitles — because in fact, the unfolding tale of murderous Macbeth and his ruthless ambition were a subplot in a bigger story: a story of language revival, Noongar leadership and empowerment.
Among the approximately 30,000-40,000 Noongar in Western Australia, around 400 speak the language with any fluency — making it an endangered language, along with the majority of Australia’s Indigenous languages since colonisation.
One of those Noongar speakers is Barry McGuire, an artist and member of Perth Festival’s Noongar Advisory Circle, with Balladong and Wadjuk heritage.
Speaking to ABC the afternoon after Hecate opened, McGuire said he was excited “to see our language living in the entirety of its vibrations, that was the way we would have walked and talked.”
“I remember as a child, my dad and his uncle used to just sit and speak in language. When my dad’s uncle died, my dad said ‘Oh well there’s nobody else to talk to.’ And I said ‘But I’m here dad’ — and I spoke back to him in language. And so we became best friends.”
Barry McGuire performed a Welcome to Country at the opening of three Perth Festival exhibitions at Fremantle Arts Centre. (Supplied: Fremantle Arts Centre/Pixel Poetry)
Bracknell conceded that “to present a Shakespeare text or work in an endangered language will not mean very much to most people”.
“[But] the real work that has been done with this project is the language resurgence amongst Noongar actors and creatives, which empowers them individually and collectively to have a piece of ancient knowledge that belongs to them, that they have not had fully until this time,” he said.
“The heart work, the language work, and by extension the community healing, that has occurred throughout the developments of [this work], will have a lasting effect for years to come.”
For non-Indigenous audiences, Bracknell hoped there was also a takeaway, sharing an anecdote with RN’s The Stage Show during a live broadcast at Subiaco Arts Centre:
“We had a gentleman in the audience in the front row last night … who was sitting there reading the synopsis for 85-90 per cent of the show. And I felt really sad for him … because he was missing out on the energy and the movement and the smiles and the smirks, and the curiosity of the face, how the lines move around your eyes and your mouth … that’s a language, and we’ve forgotten that language,” Bracknell said.
“What happened to paying attention to people’s body language and how they might be feeling? We don’t need subtitles, we need to actually connect with human beings again.”
Kyle J Morrison (centre) first had the idea for a Noongar version of Macbeth in 2011, and performs several roles in the production. (Supplied: Perth Festival/Dana Weeks)
Bennelong: whitefella history through a black lens
Woollarawarre Bennelong is a celebrated but also contested figure of colonial-era history, alternatively labelled a diplomat, a collaborator, a leader.
Bangarra’s Bennelong is a harrowing tale that takes the audience from his birth (in approximately 1764) in Port Jackson (in the Greater Sydney region) through the arrival of Captain Cook and Co. in 1788, Bennelong’s capture at the orders of Governor Arthur Phillip, his apparent assimilation in white colonial society, and later descent into mental and physical illness.
Alienated from both white and Eora society, he dies alone and anguished — in a performance of extraordinary depth, by Beau Dean Riley Smith.
Beau Dean Riley Smith (third from left) won a Helpmann Award for his portrayal of Woollarawarre Bennelong, a Wangul man of the Eora nation. (Supplied: Bangarra/Daniel Boud)
So there was a certain poetic justice when Bangarra premiered the show at Sydney Opera House, on Bennelong Point — effectively reclaiming the history of this maltreated figure on one of Australia’s key culture sites of power, which was built on a traditional gathering ground (originally known as Dubbagullee, in Gadigal language).
That was June 2017, and in the years since, the show has scooped up seven Helpmann Awards (including Best New Australian Work) and toured nationally (with repeat seasons in Victoria and Queensland). After Perth, it embarks on a regional tour before returning to Sydney.
Bennelong is tough, but also intensely beautiful and stirring; Page’s expressive choreography is matched by evocative design and costumes (by Jacob Nash and Jennifer Irwin, respectively), and a soundtrack that blends traditional Indigenous songs and instrumentation with classical European music, Waltzing Matilda, a sea shanty, contemporary rap — and even live recordings of protest chants: “No pride in genocide”.
As much as this is about history, it’s always very clear that Bennelong’s experience casts a long shadow into the present, where plenty of Indigenous people continue to find navigating a colonial context an equally fraught experience.
Stephen Page describes Bennelong as “a traditional man who was, against his initial will, shown a European way of life, and became an intermediary between his clan and the colonialists.” (Supplied: Bangarra)
Of the process of researching and making the work, Page says: “You’re getting the information from the white perspective, and so you’re trying to then dilute that down and push it towards the heart of the black sensibility.”
Crucially, the work is conceived with mob front of mind — rather than the predominantly-white audience that attends Bangarra’s shows: “We’re so into the process that I do become slightly arrogant towards who’s watching it,” Page said.
“And I have to — I have to really invest in the process, and make sure everyone feels safe to tell the story.”
This has not been at the expense of a non-Indigenous audience, who turned up in numbers for this show — and learned some things in the process.
Noongar man Barry McGuire, who saw Bennelong’s opening night in Perth, told me: “I was sitting next to a guy from America, and he said ‘So can you tell me just a little bit more, brother, about the Bennelong story.’ So we gave him a brief [summary] of what we know of what happened to Bennelong, and encouraged him to study what had happened.”
“And there was a couple of other [non-Aboriginal] fellas who said [after the show] ‘You know I understand why we should change the date of Australia Day’.”
As much as Perth Festival’s all-indigenous opening week offered a perspective shift for audiences, it was also a major moment for local Noongar community and artists, and Indigenous artists from interstate.
Explaining the experience of the opening week, McGuire told me: “It’s kind of like a huge Welcome to Country to everybody that comes to Perth, by us traditional owners.”
Talking with McGuire, it became clear that involvement in Perth Festival is something he and his peers and elders within the community regard as essential — part of their ancient and ongoing obligations.
“For thousands of years, since the world was soft, we hosted nations — we were always hosting,” he explains to me.
“Our people had a structure of performance; where do our guests sit, where do our traditional owners sit? How do they set out the fires? How do they set out the ceremony ground? And before they get to that, what do they have to do in finding out who’s related to who, and how are the skins related when they’re coming from other nations?”
“This [Perth Festival] is just another level of gathering,” he said.
Perth Festival had engaged the Noongar community from its early days, describing it as “one of the best festivals in Australia” in terms of its engagement — but that this year is particularly special, McGuire said.
“Most of the time you see us doing Welcome to Country, and then the performance happens, and the behind the scenes [stuff] happens — and everybody else gets to sit with those artists, but the Aboriginal people who have their spiritual safety [in their charge] and the ageless [duty] of caring for another human and the vibrations of land, don’t really have that opportunity to share [with the artists] to the full extent,” he said.
“[But] especially this year, we are actually seen.”
Perth Festival runs until March 1.
The writer travelled to Perth as a guest of Perth Festival.
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