Seeking Biloela: A flight of discovery to inspire

Seeking Biloela: A flight of discovery to inspire

Seeking Biloela.
By Liz Lea and Tammi Gissell.
The Street Theatre. October 26 at 7.30pm, October 27 at 4pm.
Tickets: $29 full, $27 concession, student $19.
Bookings: 6247 1223 or

Although the proverb "Birds of a feather flock together" has been around at least since the mid 16th century suggesting like-minded people getting together, it also reflects that birds of the same species congregate in large groups to avoid predators or capture.

Tammi Gissell, left, and Liz Lea in <em>Seeking Biloela</em> on show at the Street Theatre October 26-27.

Tammi Gissell, left, and Liz Lea in Seeking Biloela on show at the Street Theatre October 26-27.Credit:Katherine Griffiths

Two birds of a feather – dancer, choreographer and director Liz Lea and dancer, choreographer, poet and performance theorist, Tammi Gissell, have come together in Canberra to create Seeking Biloela, about the red-tailed cockatoo.

In Seeking Biloela, audiences at the Street Theatre will witness the culmination of 18 months of research at CSIRO Discovery in a program of two dance solos about loss and trauma in the world of birds.

<em>Seeking Biloela</em> on show at the Street Theatre October 26-27, including two new dance solos by dancers, left, Tammi Gissell and Liz Lea.

Seeking Biloela on show at the Street Theatre October 26-27, including two new dance solos by dancers, left, Tammi Gissell and Liz Lea.Credit:Katherine Griffiths

In telling the stories, Lea's solo Kap-ture and Gissell's solo Magnifi-cus Magnificus, reflect a mix of influences and celebrate indigenous culture.

“Movement-wise they [the solos] are quite different,” Lea says. “I'm drawing on classical Indian dance in the Bharatanatyam style – more so than I have for some time.

“Tammi is almost Shamanistic in Magnificus Magnificus in the way she's channelling spirits when she's working with the black cockatoo. She'll be doing some Irish dance and there's some roller-skating. It's quite loud – whereas Kap-ture is quiet – the music is jazz and tabla. Tammi's is more about open landscape and mine is more closed.”

Kapture has also been inspired by the writings of freedom fighter Ahmed Kathrada, imprisoned for 26 years in South Africa alongside Nelson Mandela. It features a favourite Bollywood song of Kathrada written in 1957 about a trapped bird – an obvious link to the trauma of being trapped or imprisoned.

“That's where I got the idea,” Lea says. “I hope the two solos sit well together – two solo women and live music inspired by birdlike movements – that's how it's come together.”

The soundscape for Kap-ture includes song and spoken words, tabla player Bobby Singh, on stage, and music by composer and saxophonist Sandy Evans.

Christian Novak has designed a cage that breaks down into a series of boxes to create the set, with lighting by Karen Norris.

When researching cockatoos at CSIRO, Lea met Dr Denis Saunders, AM, who has extensively researched the ecology, behaviour and taxonomy of cockatoos – white-tailed black cockatoos, red-tailed black cockatoos and corellas.

Saunders confirmed for Lea that it was the red-tailed black cockatoo that was indigenous to Bourke, the region where, coincidentally, Gissell was born.

“That's where Magnificus Magni-ficus started and Tammi and I worked closely with Denis getting to know about the bird,” Lea says.

The past 18 months have been emotional for Gissell because most of the work was created outside in familiar territory in Cairns and Bourke.

Magnificus Magnificus is a very personal work for her with a movement vocabulary that is intense and demanding.

“The red-tails come from where I come from,” Gissell says.

“I heard a lot of stories about them when I was growing up. The stories are based on traditional knowledge. The red-tailed black cockatoo is the revealer of truth.?

“So for me, this has been much more than just making pretty shapes or phrases or interesting movement.? It's born out of going back to dancing on the river where my Nan grew up and having that soil there and the connection with the land.”

“Nanny said to me when I took this on, 'You must not muck around with this black ?cockatoo because it's the revealer of truth and it will pull truth out of you that you didn't know – parts of yourself will come out and it's not always going to be pretty.' "

Gissell says she knew from the word go that if she tried to make Magni-ficus Magnificus “a pretty dance or exciting dance or something that would be palatable to people” she would be going down the wrong track and it would have lost its authenticity and “the black cocky would have told on me".

“They're such formidable birds and their screech is distinctive. That's why Nanny said, 'They'll tell on you because they fly high and are closer to God than you are. There's the truth, tears and rain that the black cockies bring.' "

Gissell says that working with Lea is the best project of her career.

“We're making a show that is entertaining and informative and we're trying to maintain the integrity of indigenous performance.

"I would be satisfied if this was my last show . . . it has challenged me so much physically to be able to draw from my traditional movement and western movement. I wanted to marry the old with the new. Everything I do as an Aboriginal person is a contemporary expression of being indigenous. It's about authenticity from within.

“It's certainly enriched my life – everything has had meaning and Liz has such respect for other cultures and patience for blackfella time. It has taken 18 months. Dad used to say, 'You can't push the river, girl, you've gotta just let it flow.'

"I must maintain the integrity of this proud bird – an important bird culturally – it is special and we have secret knowledge and we can't muck around with it. ? We've got the song men,” Gissell says. “We've got my Uncle Eric and we've got kinship. It's got a very solid connecting foundation and there's no way I could have possibly mucked around with this because bad things will happen if you muck around with things – that black cocky – they watch you.”

According to Gissell there are some funny moments as well as gut-wrenching moments in Seeking Biloela. Her other heritage is Irish and “we have some fun with that,” she says. “There's text – me just yarning and some voice over and poetry. There's an amazing tree made by Naomi Ota [a Japanese fibre installation artist based in Melbourne] from wool that my dad had sheared.”

The creative team also includes Adam Ventoura who has created the score for musicians Eric Avery, violin, and Graham Davis King, didgeridoo, who play live on stage for Magnificus Magnificus.

Seeking Biloela is presented as part of the Made in Canberra program at the Street Theatre and the Canberra Centenary and Lea hopes to tour the show to South Africa and India.

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