• Intercultural performance company Marrugeku has celebrated 25 years with the release of a book. (MARRUGEKU)Source: MARRUGEKU
The intercultural performance company is celebrating 25 years by releasing a new book that charts its founding story.
4 Oct 2021 - 12:39 PM  UPDATED 4 Oct 2021 - 12:39 PM

When budding dancer Dalisa Pigram met emerging theatre director Rachael Swain in the mid-1990s, little did she know they would forge a creative partnership lasting 25 years and counting.

Pigram had been studying musical theatre at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts with influential Gamilaroi and Mandandanji choreographer and dancer Michael Leslie.

"He was my dance teacher as well as my mentor," the Yawuru/Bardi woman explains from her home in Broome, where Marrugeku has been headquartered since 2004.

"Michael had conceived the idea of inviting Sydney-based physical theatre company Stalker to collaborate with Indigenous artists in Arnhem Land to make a show about mimih spirits, because he'd seen Stalker's amazing acrobatic skills on stilts at a Perth Festival show."

Leslie invited Pigram and several other students he felt had the requisite skills to get involved, introducing them to Swain, an expat New Zealander with settler heritage, who was Stalker's then co-artistic director.

"Michael thought Stalker's stilt dance and acrobatics could be combined with Kunwinjku dance and storytelling to make a work that interpreted the mimih spirits," Swain says from home on Gadigal land in Sydney.

In a book launched this week - Marrugeku: Telling That Story - co-editors Pigram, Swain and Helen Gilbert share some of the company's founding story.

"The Kunwinjku people … understand the mimih spirits to visit artists in their dreams, giving them dances, songs or paintings, which they can then materialise in their art. At night, the mimih shape-shift into the human realm and mischievously play tricks to teach lessons."

Across two years of research and development, strong connections were forged with the Kunwinjku community at Gunbalanya in West Arnhem Land, and permission was given for the story to be interpreted through the collaboration, with the cast devising the choreography.

Kunwinjku storyman Thompson Yulidjirri and songman Bruce Nabegeyo came aboard for the development, and the work, titled Mimi, was commissioned for the 1996 Perth Festival.

As opening night drew closer, Swain was of the mind that the project should have a separate identity apart from that of Stalker.

"I felt clear that it should have the freedom to go in its own direction," she says. "Michael was travelling back to Arnhem Land, so I asked him to ask one of the traditional owners for a name."

Cultural custodian Jacob Nayinggul came up with Marrugeku, which means 'clever man' in Kunwinjku.

"Stalker produced Marrugeku for many years and we were sister companies for a long time," Swain says.

"But from that moment on, Marrugeku had its own identity, and when it premiered, it was under the banner of Marrugeku."

After garnering rave reviews in Perth, Marrugeku began touring the genre-defying production, first in Gunbalanya and then throughout Arnhem Land.

The following year they toured Europe and performed to audiences of 13,000 at Sydney's Festival of the Dreaming.

In 1998 they took Mimi to the Philippines and New Caledonia.

One of the production's most evocative performances took place on December 31, 1999 on Mutitjulu lands at Uluru, from where it was broadcast around the world by satellite.

"Dalisa was 18 and I was 27 when Mimi premiered in Perth," Swain recalls. "It was the first work I'd directed, so a lot of us grew up as artists in the company.

"Performing to other communities around Arnhem Land after the Perth premiere forged the bonds and the sense of what we could do together and that gave us the strength to go international."

At first, touring the globe together was intensely challenging.

"None of us knew how to do any of it, we were working it out as we went along," Swain says. "But the strength of the audience responses in those early years gave us what we needed to keep going."

Marrugeku's next work, Crying Baby, based on an orphan dreaming story from West Arnhem Land, had its avant premiere as a Darwin Festival off-site production near Gunbalanya in 2000.

The company officially premiered the show at the 2001 Perth Festival before performing it at the opening of the National Museum of Australia in Canberra and then taking it to Europe, where Marrugeku had a following.

"We've always been better known overseas than in Australia," Swain says. "Partially it's because the company has been culturally located in remote areas, in Arnhem Land in the early years, and then in Broome when we started making work there."

In 2003, Swain, Pigram and others involved in Marrugeku began research on a new project focused on Yawuru language, culture and storytelling in Broome. On her first trip there, Swain met Pigram's 'pop', Senator Patrick Dodson.

"Patrick, Dalisa and I discussed what it might mean to develop a new dance language in Broome," she says.

"It took us five development stages across four years before we premiered a work. We were workshopping a whole new approach to making intercultural dance appropriate to the Indigenous community in Broome."

The resulting work melded dance, film, live music, karaoke and Malaysian martial arts in an evocative and multi-layered tale of a night out in the historic pearling centre.

Burning Daylight was choreographed by Marrugeku associate, Serge Aime Coulibaly, a former member of Belgium's contemporary dance company Les Ballets C de la B who hails from Burkina Faso in West Africa.

The production premiered at Shinju Matsuri, or the Festival of the Pearl, in Broome in 2006, before touring internationally the next year and throughout Australia in 2009.

In 2008, Pigram and Swain became artistic co-directors of Marrugeku, with former company member Lorrae Coffin chairing the newly formed board of directors.

Senator Dodson is Marrugeku's patron and cultural dramaturge.

"He works with Dalisa and I before and during every show," Swain says.

"He's a Yawuru lawman but also one of Australia's senior Indigenous political leaders, so his knowledge of political histories of Australia for Indigenous peoples is always a big part of what he contributes as a dramaturge."

Since then, Marrugeku has created ever more complex, nuanced and innovative work that, while firmly embedded in Yawuru culture, also draws on the traditions of other nations and cultures, including First Nations.

They have devised work for young audiences on the six seasons of Yawuru (Buru, 2010), explored trans-Indigenous perspectives on climate change (Cut the Sky, 2015), and surveyed the effects of French colonisation on New Caledonia (Le Dernier Appel, or The Last Cry, 2018).

In 2013, Pigram's solo work, Gudirr Gudirr, played in Sydney, Brisbane and Noumea, toured Europe twice, and picked up an Australian Dance Award for best independent production and a Green Room Award for best female dancer.

The company's most recent work, Jurrungu Ngan-ga, or Straight Talk, is an unflinching exploration of the history of incarceration in Australia.

"It builds links between Australia's incarceration of its First Peoples and the incarceration of refugees on prison islands," Swain says.

For Pigram, who usually choreographs and dances, this is the first major production in which she has focused exclusively on the former.

"Jurrungu Ngan-ga was to premiere in Hamburg and at the Darwin Festival last year, then it was going to premiere in Sydney and at the Darwin Festival this year," Swains says.

"We hope to announce its Australian premiere in early 2022 shortly."

Broome audiences were treated to a premiere earlier in 2021.

"Our aim is always to have our new productions shown in the community where we have a home base and get feedback, and the responses were fantastic," Pigram says.

Although COVID-19 has resulted in the postponement of several overseas tours, the downtime has allowed Swain, Pigram and the book's many contributors to focus on the scholarly full-colour publication, which was launched by Senator Dodson in a live-stream event on Wednesday.

"Dalisa and I have spent most of our adult life on tour - Marrugeku was founded as a touring company," Swain says.

For Pigram, a qualified language teacher who instructs some 350 children at Cable Beach Primary School in Yawuru language each week, the past 18 months have been an opportunity to spend quality time with her husband and four children.

"It will be hard for me to go on tour again after being home for so long," she says. "It's become normal for my kids that I'm at home."

Both Swain and Pigram acknowledge that working at Marrugeku is "not for the faint-hearted".

"We love it with a passion but it's stressful, adrenaline-fuelled and there's a precarity to everything we do," Swain says.

"We don't tackle your usual conceptual ideas," Pigram adds. "We're trying to say something and do something with the art we make, and that's challenging."

Pigram is proud that neither she nor Swain has walked away from Marrageku when obstacles have presented themselves, which they have, frequently.

"It could be over a financial issue, like trying to get a remote community tour up and running, which is costly," Pigram says. "But why should they miss out? Why is world-class performance only delivered on world-class stages?

"We deliver the same productions to communities like Bidyadanga or Fitzroy Crossing in the Kimberley as we do to major theatres across the world," she says.

Earlier this week, Pigram was dropping off copies of the book to former company members in Broome.

"That was a big day of tears and memories," she says. "I feel humble about being on this journey. We had no idea that making Mimi would lead to another show, and another, and another.

"And it's certainly not just me and Rachael, that's for sure. If there's one thing to say about Marrugeku, it is that it has been created by a huge family."

For more details on Marrugeku: Telling That Story, visit marrugeku.com.au