Broome-based dance company Marrugeku is dedicated to developing new dance languages from Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians working together. Their triple bill Burrbgaja Yalirra (Dancing Forwards) opened at PICA on Friday and demonstrated just how many walls art can break down.

The artistic dialogue included choreographers from Belgium and Burkina Faso, hip hop beats and classical violin, quotes from local poet Kim Scott and references to the movie Picnic at Hanging Rock. The idea was that the interdisciplinary and intercultural collaboration would produce counter narratives to revitalise our national imagery. And under the watchful eye of directors Dalisa Pigram and Rachael Swain the concept did just that.

Edwin Lee Mulligan (photo Jon Green)

The first work by Kimberley-based Edwin Lee Mulligan explored the guiding principle Ngarlimbah. Using indigenous language and dance he shared stories and dreams about how to read landscape and apply it to life. Images by Mulligan and animation artist Sohan Ariel Hayes of running dogs, red desert and waterlilies made a stunning backdrop. Mulligan moved with light clean gestures, enacting first a dog, a fish, a bird, then standing tall to deliver his closing soliloquy: look at your spirit and see if it is in step with your conscience and the land on which you are walking.

JG18028_Miranda Wheen in Miranda picture by Jon Green .jpg
Miranda Wheen (photo Jon Green)

Sydney dancer Miranda Wheen explored the seismic change in thinking required for Australia to deal with its past, making links to  the unresolved ending in the film Picnic at Hanging Rock. Dancing in front of a granite back drop she used the language of contemporary ballet to convey the tension: staccato, angular movements, alternately stretched and stuck in awkward poses, delivered with precision and control. Sam Serruys’ electronic sound track heightened the intensity which peaked when Wheen screamed “Where are you Miranda?”and sobbed out an Acknowledgement of Country. Despite or perhaps because of the harrowing intensity there were moments that flagged in the 25 minute work where director and co-choreographer Serge Aimé Coulibaly could have done more judicial editing.

Eric Avery (photo Jon Green)

Dancing With Strangers featured Sydney performer Eric Avery enacting first contact/invasion narratives using his violin playing, dance, song and dialogue. The motifs were cleverly woven together: the violin represented classical traditions but was also sampled to create dance rhythms and used as a whip, spear and a sword. Avery’s text included ancestral songs and a poem from Kim Scott’s That Dead Man Dance. His dancing was similarly a combination of pantomine, animal caricatures and explosive leaps. There were several powerful moments, such as when Avery began to write over his body in an attempt to retain language, and his heartfelt Utopian vision for the future. Again, though, the potency would have been increased by tighter editing.

The resonance between the three works and the cohesive storytelling was outstanding, particularly given the multiple components in the program. If only art could mirror life and Australia could similarly find a new cultural pathway, a way to “dance forwards”.

Burrbgaja Yalirra continues at PICA until 16th June.