Feature

Telling a tough West Australian tale

8 May 2019

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Co3 Australia’s new work The Line investigates a darker side of Western Australia’s past and its impact on the present, discovers Nina Levy.

Say the word “apartheid” and most people will think of the regime of racial segregation implemented by the South African government from 1948 until the early 1990s.

Mark Howett and Raewyn Hill in rehearsal. Photo: Daniel Carson | dcimges.org

But legislated racial discrimination is a part of Australian history too and it’s this story that WA’s state contemporary dance company Co3 Australia is telling in its new work The Line, co created by Co3 Artistic Director and choreographer Raewyn Hill and Co3 Associate Artist Mark Howett, a Noongar man and a director and designer for theatre, dance, opera and film.

The title The Line refers to a law, passed in 1927, that prohibited Aboriginal people from coming within the boundary lines of the City of Perth – an area of about five square kilometres – after 6.00pm, unless they could prove that they were in “lawful employment”. The land inside the boundaries was referred to as the Prohibited Area, and only those Aboriginal people with a special “native pass” were allowed to pass through it after the 6pm curfew.

In spite of the fact that the legislation remained in place for over 20 years, this piece of West Australian history isn’t well-known today and that’s one of the reasons that Hill and Howett have chosen it as the starting point for Co3 Australia’s latest work. It’s also relevant to the company’s mission, says Hill. “Part of Co3’s artistic vision is to situate the artistic program within our people, our culture, our community, our land, our Country, our experiences, our history,” she elaborates. “Every work developed in Co3’s repertoire will have some reference to WA.”

Andrew Searle and Ian Wilkes rehearsing ‘The Line’. Photo: Daniel Carson | dcimges.org

This isn’t the first time that Hill and Howett have worked together. As artistic director of WA’s Ochre Contemporary Dance Company, Howett convinced Hill to come out of performance retirement to dance in his physical theatre work Good Little Soldier in 2017. The pair knew they wanted to collaborate again, so when Hill started looking for WA stories, Howett was an obvious person to approach.

“We started talking about Roe St and the possibility of making a piece that related to something near the State Theatre Centre of WA (where The Line will be performed),” recalls Howett. “I said, ‘You know that we’re really in the heart of the Prohibited Area, in the theatre.’” Hill then gave Howett Stephen Kinnane’s Shadow Lines to read, a book that tells the story of Kinnane’s grandparents, an Aboriginal woman and an Englishman, and the challenges they faced, as a result of their different racial backgrounds, in early to mid-twentieth century WA. Shadow Lines details many of the hardships and cruelties faced by Aboriginal people at the hands of the Government, including the Prohibited Area.

“The conversation really took off from there,” says Howett. “We thought that there was something in [that book] that was pretty remarkable, in a way… and in the lack of [awareness amongst] most West Australians about the Prohibited Area, and its impact on the Noongar community, and Aboriginal community in general.”

Talking to Noongar elders Lynette Narkle, Richard Walley, Darryl Kickett and Anna Haebich has played a big role in shaping The Line, says Hill. “I remember saying to Mark – not so long ago – that I was worried, because I couldn’t find the core [of the story]. He said to me, ‘Don’t worry, the elders will bring the story.’ And they did. We always knew [the story] was around the concept of the Prohibited Area: separation, segregation, confinement … but … speaking with the Elders I felt they brought the story of recognition, reconciliation, empathy, compassion, healing.”

And though the story is (loosely) set in Perth of the 1930s, the focus is very much on the present, says Hill. “Talking to people, [we’ve found that many] didn’t even realise that [the Prohibited Area] existed. We’ve sort of uncovered something about our past and then we’ve made a narrative about that, but we talk about the impact on how we are currently, rather than saying here’s a story about [our past].

“So instead of saying, ‘Here’s a story about the Prohibited Area,’ we’re saying, ‘What did that [legislation] do to us as a community, as people? How did that shape our current situation?’”

It’s important to Hill and Howett, too, that audiences understand that while the Prohibited Area may be a thing of the past, discrimination continues today, in other guises.

“I find the parallels [between Australian society of the past and the present] remarkable,” says Howett. “The 2003 Curfew Act – which was another welfare policy by the State Government to take unaccompanied minors off the street and had a big impact on the Aboriginal community – was really, in a way, no different to the policy of the Prohibited Area and having to have a native pass. The parallels keep coming. Like, for example, most of the Aboriginal people who were taken to Wadjemup (Rottnest), [when it was a prison for Aboriginal people during the 1800s and early 1900s] were arrested for larceny and petty crimes, and you only have to think of the young Noongar actor just sent to jail for unpaid fines… the echoes of that are really remarkable.”

Hill agrees. “It’s a story that’s alive and well, it’s more than current.”

It’s also, Hill acknowledges, “very difficult subject matter, it’s filled with trauma and it’s dark, and there’s a lot of pain.”

So how to present that on stage?

“The way we’ve been dealing with it on a narrative level is we’ve been using slapstick when it gets really heavy, drawing from silent movies,” explains Howett.

“We’ve been looking at Charlie Chaplin, silent movies, looking at the irony of his storytelling and how he could address darkness with no voice and just through mime,” continues Hill. “That’s been a real inspiration.

“It’s not about dumbing it down or cheapening it, but we’ve been able to talk about some really dark things through humour. So in fact we’ve probably gone even a bit darker… but it doesn’t necessarily feel like that. You are left laughing and laughter is something that brings us together, as a community. It’s a common language.

“Mark is extraordinary at telling a story. That’s what brings us together as makers. What I’m intrigued about, as a maker, is finding different ways of telling that story where you mute the voice, or the voice sits outside of the physical body. So we’ve been playing with that, and that’s enabled a whole new movement language.”

Ian Wilkes and Andrew Searle rehearsing ‘The Line’. Photo: Daniel Carson | dcimges.org

Talking to Hill and Howett, it’s apparent that they approach the process of making the work from opposite perspectives, but rather than clashing, they complement one another.

“Mark has a phenomenal ability to direct, to find narrative, to tell stories and I don’t think I do!” Hill laughs before continuing, “The combination of Mark’s direction, with my movement imagery and language… we feel like these sit quite beautifully together.”

For Howett, Hill’s dance knowledge is a gift. “It’s great for me, as a maker, to have someone who understands the mechanics of the body much more [than I do],” he muses. “I can often see something that’s not working [for the dancers], but don’t really know how to fix it mechanically. Raewyn will really easily resolve it. She does a little dance horse-whispering.”

The Line plays the State Theatre Centre of WA, May 15-19.

Pictured top are dancers Katherine Gurr and Ian Wilkes rehearsing ‘The Line’. Photo: Stefan Gosatti.

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked for over a decade as an arts writer and critic. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. Since July 2016 Nina has also been co-editor of Dance Australia magazine. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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