Reviews/Contemporary dance/Dance/Performance

Tracker evokes trails and tribulations

2 March 2023

The all-First Nations production of Tracker puts racial injustice firmly in the spotlight through a seamless blend of words and dance, writes Nina Levy.

Tracker, Australian Dance Theatre, in association with Ilbijerri Theatre Company
Studio Underground, State Theatre of WA, 1 March 2023

There’s something moving about seeing Australian Dance Theatre (ADT) – the country’s longest-running contemporary dance company, named for the nation as a whole – presenting Tracker, a work that is created and performed by an all-First Nations team.

And there’s a sense of anticipation as we file into the auditorium for opening night, because it’s also the first time Perth is seeing ADT since the appointment of Wiradjuri dance artist Daniel Riley, who took over directorship of the company at the start of 2022.

Commissioned by Perth Festival and created in association with acclaimed Melbourne-based First Nations theatre company Ilbijerri, Tracker is co-directed by Riley and Ilbijerri’s Rachael Maza.

The result is one of the most genuine pieces of dance theatre I can recall in almost three decades of viewing – the two genres are seamlessly blended, a duet between words and movement.

Tracker is personal for Riley; it’s the story of his great, great uncle. The renowned Alexander (Alec) “Tracker” Riley was a Wiradjuri Elder who served the NSW Police Force as a black tracker for 40 years in the first half of the 20th century.

The work is episodic in nature, told in a series of vignettes (written by Ursula Yovich and Amy Sole), that flip between past and present.

We watch Alec Riley navigating the challenges, not just of locating missing people and criminals on the run, but of working for a colonial institution that capitalises on his traditional knowledge but treats him with the disdain accorded to all First Nations people.

Interspersed with these stories, we see Daniel Riley uncovering his ancestor’s stories and connecting the crimes of the past with those of the present.

Both roles are played by actor Ari Maza Long. A recent NIDA graduate, he brings an innocence that teeters on naivety to Daniel, but convincingly shifts to portray Alec’s thoughtful consideration.

A man faces to the right as he kneels down on one leg.
Ari Maza Long stars as the Tracker. Photo: Jess Wyld

Three dancers (Tyrel Dulvarie, Rika Hamaguchi and Kaine Sultan-Babij) function as a kind of chorus, constantly morphing and changing to suit the scene.

In one instance they seem to be ancestral spirits, their bodies swirling and limbs unfolding around the actor.

In another they represent the amorphous and impenetrable power of the colonisers, coalescing with aggressive slices and stomps to physically and metaphorically block the space.

Sometimes they appear to be part of the landscape or the weather, swirling and tossing around whichever Riley is present.

Like shapeshifters, Dulvarie, Hamaguchi and Sultan-Babij are magical to watch as they bring to life Riley’s choreography.

The score, by composer/sound designer James Henry and composer/live musician Gary Watling, is densely layered as though bringing to the fore the sounds of both the real and spiritual worlds.

Presented almost in the round, the stage is encircled by a curtain rail that allows set designer Jonathan Jones’s swathes of translucent fabric and leaves to be manipulated to create scenery. One is delicately printed with a bush setting, that occasionally blooms into grey-green, or sunset warmth under Chloë Ogilvie’s lighting.

The design elements of Tracker are each striking in their own right, but also cleverly interact with the story to transport us back and forth in time.

The sections featuring Alec Riley feel almost dreamlike in nature – the dancers are more strongly foregrounded, while the script becomes fragmented, like memories floating to the surface of consciousness. Occasionally the curtains are drawn, as if we’re watching through the mists of time.

Too often racial discrimination features amongst those fragments – and if you managed to miss it, it’s spelled out in language everyone can understand each time we shift to the present.

For me, a non-Aboriginal audience member, Tracker serves as a searing reminder of the crimes baked into our past that continue to discolour our present, but also of the rich source of knowledge and wisdom that is our First Nations culture, and what it can offer the rest of us, if we are willing to watch and listen.

It’s a compelling evocation of both beauty and pain.

Tracker continues at the State Theatre Centre of WA until 4 March 2023. Although the season was previously sold out, more tickets have been released.

Pictured top: Dancers Tyrel Dulvarie, Rika Hamaguchi and Kaine Sultan-Babij flow like shapeshifters in the compelling production of ‘Tracker’. Photo: Jess Wyld

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked as an arts writer and critic since 2007. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. As a freelancer she has written extensively for The West Australian and Dance Australia magazine, co-editing the latter from 2016 to 2019. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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