Chooky Dancers fuse Indigenous and Western dance to amazing effect

Djuki Mala. The Chooky Dancers. Directed by Joshua Bond. Various choreographers and music. The Spiegeltent, Canberra Theatre Centre Forecourt. April 12-13. canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 62752700.

A scene from Djuki Mala's show of the same name. Photo: Cam Campbell

A scene from Djuki Mala's show of the same name. Photo: Cam Campbell

Canberra audiences are about to experience an energetic, racy, and at times hilarious show, Djuki Mala, from a small company of young Indigenous performers who go by the name Djuki Mala, the same name as their show. But the group may be better known to some as the Chooky Dancers—in fact Djuki is “Chooky” said as if speaking the Yolngu language of northern Arnhem Land, while Mala means “Mob” in that language.

The Chooky Dancers have been making a mark around the world for the past several years. They became an instant hit back in 2007 when they took the well-known music Zorba’s Dance from the movie Zorba the Greek and created their own dance to it. It was a thank-you gesture to a Greek lady who cared for the sister of one of their dancers. What they came up with was an amazing fusion of Indigenous and Western-style movement, a combination that continues to characterise their work today. That original creation was filmed and posted online and instantly went viral. Since then Zorba's Dance has become a signature piece for the company.

The lead dancer with Djuki Mala is Baykali Ganambarr, who describes himself as “a boy from the bush", who grew up “always dancing".

Traditional dance, or what Ganambarr refers to as “cultural dance", was quite simply an intrinsic part of the day-to-day life of every man, woman and child. Ganambarr’s home is now on Elcho Island but he grew up near Alice Springs and in Darwin.

As he grew older, he was fascinated by hip-hop, break dancing and other popular Western dance styles that he saw on television. As a teenager he also spent three years in Sydney attending St Andrew’s Cathedral School, which he said was “challenging” given he had little English when he started.

Umbrellas play a significant role in <i>Djuki Mala</i>. Photo: Cam Campbell

Umbrellas play a significant role in Djuki Mala. Photo: Cam Campbell

“But I wanted to challenge myself,” he says. “And I wanted to learn and to see more dance.” He was also inspired by an uncle who danced for a time with Bangarra Dance Theatre. But he has never had formal dance training, and says he is “completely self-taught.”

Ganambarr says he doesn’t want to give too much away about the show; he wants us to see for ourselves. But he agrees that it will include the Zorba number. Its status is such that it could hardly be left out in a show that aims to give audiences something of an overview of the Chooky Dancers’ work to date. The company has even performed the Zorba piece in Greece for several of those involved in the creation of the original movie.

Ganambarr also agrees that the show will include the number Singin’ in the Rain, which is the Chooky Dancers’ tribute to the classic Hollywood film starring dancer Gene Kelly. References to Kelly’s way of dancing, however, are likely to be hard to find given the Chooky Dancers’ focus on fusion of styles. Musically, too, occasional strains of the song from the movie can be heard, but the music focuses largely on Indigenous sound.

Dancers from <i>Djuki Mala</i> strike a pose. Photo: Cam Campbell

Dancers from Djuki Mala strike a pose. Photo: Cam Campbell

However, there are plenty of umbrellas, and audiences may be amused at some of the ways they are used. But, apart from the inclusion of Zorba's Dance and Singin’ in the Rain, all Ganambarr will divulge is that there may be references to Motown and perhaps Michael Jackson, and that there is a great deal of variety in the show. Elsewhere, Ganambarr has said it has a dose of “circus and bling".

“We want to send people home smiling and our mix of dance and music styles is about love and respect and sharing and learning about cultures," he says.

Ganambarr is something of a celebrity these days. Late last year he was the winner of the Marcello Mastroianni Award for best new talent at the Venice Film Festival. He received the award for his role as an Indigenous tracker in The Nightingale, a revenge thriller set in Tasmania during the convict period. Even six or so months later, he still finds it hard to believe that he won it. He says, again: “I’m just a boy from the bush.”

With his award in mind, I wonder whether he will continue to dance, or will acting eventually claim him? “I’d like to do both,” he says. “My sister does both and if she can do it, I can do it too.”

But for the moment, Canberra and a number of other regional centres are calling and, after the Djuki Mala show has finished its run, Ganambarr is looking forward to returning home to his small community on Elcho Island. He loves to fish and play basketball and footy.

In the meantime, “See you in Canberra” are his parting words.