Earlier this year, while writing a preview story for a show by Broome-based performer Dalisa Pigram, I had the good fortune to make contact with Pigram's great uncle, Senator Patrick Dodson.
Senator Dodson told me a little about the politics behind Pigram's work, Gudirr Gudirr.
He was proud of the use of dance to convey the Indigenous messages inherent in the work and said: "In using art instead the hard-edged arguments of adversarial politics, we can get to the truth of the message much quicker and in a more palatable form."
Gudirr Gudirr is one of my five dance picks for 2017.
That work, and the other four I have chosen and ordered alphabetically by title, were all formidable and moving in their individual ways.
In line with Senator Dodson's astute comment, they showed the power of dance to convey a message in a way that shone new light on a particular issue.
Bennelong, a work about the tortured life of Wongal man, Woollarawarre Bennelong, feted in many ways in early colonial society, and yet denigrated in so many other ways by that same society, was a truly dramatic and compelling piece of dance theatre. Choreographer and director Stephen Page presented a series of episodes in Bennelong's life from birth to death, and presented him as a man trapped between two worlds yet seeming to belong fully to neither. Apart from a staggering performance as Bennelong by Beau Dean Riley Smith, what was so impressive was the manner in which Page told the story. There was no malice, no anger, no hatred in the work, just honesty in the strength of Page's adherence to the Indigenous perspective. Truly remarkable.
Canberra's first BOLD Festival was a varied program of dance events held across Canberra venues in March, and those activities included a number of performances across dance genres. The surprise highlight was a selection of dances performed at the National Portrait Gallery. I am constantly fascinated by what dance looks like in the space of Gordon Darling Hall, which is really the entrance lobby for the Portrait Gallery. I love watching how choreographers make their work fit into this space. I was especially attracted by Tammi Gissell who danced a section from Liz Lea's Magnificus Magnificus, a work concerning the red-tailed black cockatoo.
Gudirr Gudirr was a solo show, a dance format that we don't see all that often. A solo show needs a strong performer—someone who single-handedly can hold the audience's attention for an hour or so. But just as importantly, a solo show needs a powerful idea behind it, and a coherent structure in which the idea can develop. Gudirr Gudirr had everything one could hope for: an excellent performer in Dalisa Pigram, a powerful message about the efforts of Indigenous people to understand the culture in which they find themselves today, and a well thought through structure in which to present it. There were difficult and confronting moments, such as those when Pigram dwelt on youth suicide. But there were other playful sections and Pigram clearly presented herself as a woman of mixed heritage making an effort to understand and deal with the social situation in which she found herself.
This work was performed and jointly choreographed by Liz Lea and Katie Senior. As a person living with Down Syndrome, Senior carries an extra chromosome in her genetic makeup - hence the title with the "some" being the final syllable in the word chromosome. Lea, who directed the work, combined movement of various kinds with some surprise elements, an elegant use of colour, and a selection of props, audio, and footage to produce a portrait of Senior that was brave and beautiful. It showed that living with a disability does not remove a person's humanity.
This work was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery in conjunction with Dempsey's People: A folio of British street portraits 1824–1844, an exhibition of miniature portraits of those who plied their wares in the streets of London and elsewhere in Britain in the nineteenth century. Australian Dance Party's artistic director, Alison Plevey, did not try to replicate the portraits in any way but set out, successfully, to give the audience a feel for the way people might interact with others on the streets today, or at any time really. Yes, there was weaving of bodies, a bit of hustling and some halting as people stopped to observe others. A great outdoor event that made us want to take another look at the exhibition.
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