Reviews/Contemporary dance/Dance/Multi-arts

Straight talk reveals resilience behind anguish

16 September 2023

Despite its focus on the inhumanity of incarceration, Jurrungu Ngan-ga has the audience laughing and on its feet with admiration, writes Rita Clarke.

Jurrungu Ngan-ga (Straight Talk), Marrugeku
Heath Ledger Theatre, 15 September 2023

Marrugeku’s Jurrungu Ngan-ga (Straight Talk) has arrived in Perth from an international tour full of accolades for its unapologetic depiction of Australia’s history of indigenous incarceration and abuse and its interminably long detainment of asylum seekers.

Within the confines of a prison, nine eclectic and powerful dancers assail the audience’s conscience as they reveal the fury, despair and self-harm such violent situations imbue. They storm across the stage arms flailing, bodies and limbs taut with anguish. They cower when assaulted only to rise again, dancing mostly within the arc of their outstretched bodies but gathering in defiant groups in moments of protestation. 

Despite its soul-searching theme, it is the depiction of strength, resilience and tenacity that hits home and has the audience laughing, calling out in response to the dancers, and rising to their feet at the conclusion. 

Presented here as part of the Black Swan State Theatre Company’s program, Jurrungu Ngan-ga began as a collaboration between cultural dramaturgs Senator Patrick Dodson, author and former Manus Island detainee Behrouz Boochani and scholar and activist Omid Tofighian. They are joined by performance dramaturg Hildegard de Vuyst, resident dramaturg for both Marseille Festival and the brilliant French company, les ballets C de la B.

It opens with a striking set design by visual artist Abdul-Rahman Abdullah. Across the stage stretches what appears to be a solid gleaming aluminium wall of two rows of stacked rectangular boxes. No other aspect of our beautiful world that is succour for the soul is visible. The wall, through Damien Cooper’s cascading rivers of light, becomes less opaque at times, revealing the shadowy figures of the inmates and, later, one of the rectangles is pulled out to become a table on which the dancers perform. 

Straight talk
The Marrugeku performers personify anguish and defiance. Photo: Prudence Upton

This sequence is full of defiant gaiety and dialogue, with teasing sexual connotations from the riveting Bhenji Ra, dressed persuasively in red by costume designer Andrew Treloar. She taunts the audience with one of the salutary questions of Marrugeku’s production “What are you afraid of?”  

It is her provocation and her insistence that she is just one of us which initiates relieved laughter and calls from the audience, along with the defiance of her fellow prisoners who march about, fists raised, psyching themselves up like the rampant AFL footballers they probably could be if allowed in as citizens. (Now there’s a thought). 

This sequence is a joyous break from other jaw-smacking episodes – separated by sudden startling blackouts – in which isolated individuals suffer not only from brutality but mental anguish, hugging themselves, walking around and around like caged bears or prostrating themselves in agony.

Dalisa Pigram and Rachael Swain, founding members of Broome-based Marrugeku, resist any sugar-coating as they courageously choreograph and direct this hard-hitting production. The forceful voice of singer Farhad Bandesh and the pulsating music and soundscape created by three musicians, sound designers and composers with enviable pedigrees – Sam Serruys, Paul Charlier and musician Rhyan Clapham aka DOBBY – add to the power of the production. 

The nine performers (also credited as co-devisers) – Ra, Czack Bero, Emmanuel James Brown, Mirandah Wheen, Luke Currie-Richardson, Issa El Assaad, Macon Escobal Riley, Feras Shaheen and Chandler Connell – are each so focused, dramatic and powerful it is impossible to label them as anything but outstanding. Their rendition of the song This is Australia is a highlight and prescient reminder, as the production intended, of the wrongs we share with the rest of an intolerant world.

Jurrungu Ngan-ga continues until 23 September 2023

Pictured top: Abdul-Rahman Abdullah’s striking set design is the perfect backdrop for the production. Photo by Prudence Upton

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Author —
Rita Clarke

Whilst studying arts at UWA Rita found herself working at Radio 6UVSfm presenting the breakfast and Arts shows, and writing and producing various programs for ABC’s Radio National. A wordsmith at heart she also began writing features and reviews on theatre, film and dance for The Australian, The Financial Review, The West Australian, Scooby and other magazines. Tennis keeps her fit, and her family keeps her happy, as does writing now for Seesaw.

Past Articles

  • Rewriting tradition with skill and charm

    It’s a privilege to witness the stunning dexterity of choreographer Raghav Handa and musician Maharshi Raval as they disrupt the traditional roles of Indian dance with grace and charisma, says Rita Clarke.

  • Eloquent eccentricity in fabulous Façade

    Only Chrissie Parrott could make a success of the multi-layered, darkly comical confection that is Façade, writes Rita Clarke.

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