"Daughter of Broome" is how choreographer and performer Dalisa Pigram likes to refer to herself. Pigram, whose solo show Gudirr, Gudirr will soon be seen in Canberra, has a mixed heritage, as do many inhabitants of Broome, a pearling town in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.
Both Pigram's parents are Yawuru people, traditional custodians of the land around Broome. But both sides of her family have mixed bloodlines that include links to the Bardi people from the area north of Broome, and people from Malaya, the Philippines, Ireland and England.
Gudirr, Gudirr, a production by Broome-based performance company Marrugeku, also has many strands to it. Broome escaped the indignities of the White Australia Policy because of the pearling industry, which brought successive waves of people from Asia to work in the town. But, even though the industry was exempt from the White Australia Policy, it suffered many of its effects and Pigram is concerned about the long-term consequences of that early regime.
In Gudirr, Gudirr, as in life, she faces up to the harsh history she feels her people have had to endure, which has left indigenous communities struggling. Youth suicide concerns her, for example. Then, she is part of a program at Cable Beach Primary School to teach the Yawuru language before it is lost, and she wants to ensure that the distinctive culture of Broome does not disappear.
The focus of Gudirr, Gudirr is a small bird, called Guwayi in the Yawuru language, and using the bird as a pivot for her work was suggested to Pigram by a relative, traditional lawman and cultural adviser to Marrugeku, Patrick Dodson, now a West Australian senator. Senator Dodson is Pigram's great uncle – her mother's mother's brother in the Yawuru kinship system.
"The Guwayi bird flies very low across the intertidal area to warn people out on the reef that the tide is coming in," Senator Dodson explains. "It warns people that it is time to move because the tide brings danger. It is a warning to take heed of, and not to ignore the signs. The Guwayi bird does not tell lies.
"I told this story to Dalisa because the story of the Guwayi bird can be used to reflect on the social challenges that Indigenous people face today. The warning sign from the Guwayi bird can go one of two ways. We are either going to drown because we are not reading the signs of our disempowerment, or we will hear the warnings and we will take steps."
Pigram believes strongly that the young people of the community must read the signs and take those steps.
The structure of Gudirr, Gudirr, like Pigram's heritage, is multi-layered. It combines the spoken word, using the Yawuru language as well as English; video projections; music, including songs from Pigram's uncle Stephen, a member of the Pigram Brothers band; and a variety of dance styles.
Pigram has a background in gymnastics from school and her use of a suspended fishing net, which forms part of the set, suggests she is a strong aerialist. But she also has a sound knowledge of Malay dance and the martial art form known as silat, which she learnt from her Malay grandfather, Datu Amat. Silat features strongly in Gudirr, Gudirr, as do Indigenous and Western contemporary styles of movement.
In addition, Pigram has been working on Gudirr, Gudirr, with Belgian choreographer Koen Augustijnen using a "task-based" approach. Although Pigram went to Belgium and Augustijnen came to Australia during the course of creating Gudirr, Gudirr, a lot of communication happened at a distance. Augustijnen would give her tasks – "show frustration" was one, "show restlessness" was another – and she would work for a bit on several tasks, film that she had created, and send it off to Belgium. Then, together they would refine the improvisations into finished choreography.
Towards the end of our conversation, I ask Pigram if she thinks the show is confronting. She knows I am thinking in particular of a moment in the show when a well-known four-letter word becomes the focus of Pigram's frustration. She has no hesitation in answering yes. But she continues:
"I am confronting myself. It is not a rave at the audience, but a rave at myself. It is a hard look in the mirror. I am telling audiences who I am. I think Gudirr, Gudirr is an honest work and that can be confronting. But the beauty of contemporary dance is that it is a way to see and face things differently."
In many respects, the suspended fishing net is the key to Pigram's "rave" and Pigram uses it for a variety of purposes.
"It is my silent partner," she says. It holds me and it entangles me. "But it gives me freedom to fly too. It is also a symbol of saltwater country and speaks of experiences I had going fishing with my father. It brings back memories of what we learn from our elders."
Gudirr, Gudirr is a courageous and moving exploration of identity and the search to renew culture. As Senator Dodson says of the work: "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 at the Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre, September 30, $55. Bookings 6275 2700, canberratheatrecentre.com.au