Bright yellow clumps of spinifex and red dirt, stretching out to the sky, is projected on the backdrop. On the stage, steam billows out from a rusty pipe and figures clothed in plastic bags fight over scraps- lone figures in a post-apocalyptic wasteland- as a bare chested violinist plays in a dark corner. Through it walks a displaced traditional owner in a T-shirt, shorts and an akubra, as the whir and hum of crickets rises.
“It’s been ten years and it’s never been raining,” he says.
Relationship to country is central to Marrugeku’s gripping intercultural dance theatre production Cut the Sky.
The performance, which opened on Thursday night for the Sydney Festival at the Opera House, makes clear that this relationship to country is under threat- from mining, development and climate change. In one scene a lone dancer yells out scrambled and incoherent thoughts as she scurries about the stage, her body jerking uncontrollably, as if under the influence of some drug or poison.
“We don’t know how much more we can take,” she pauses as her body jerks, “before we start to see abrupt changes!”
The show is a series of confronting snapshots of our past, present and future through an Aboriginal lens- blending the traditional and the contemporary through dance, song and the spoken word.
“There’s two different types of looking at country, “says the man in the akubra to the crowd, “the whitefella way and our way”.
In realty he is Edwin Lee Mulligan, renowned Kimberley artist, whose works have been exhibited around Australia and in New York. His poems are weaved throughout the show, blending dreamtime stories and social commentary. He tells us that the ‘whitefella way’ of looking at country is different- it’s all about gas, minerals, oil. But the dreaming contains warning about gas- a dangerous lady, that one.
These are important themes for our times, but also a story especially close to home for the Broome based company, with co-founders Rachael Swain and Yawuru/Bardi woman Dalisa Pigram at the helm.
Broome, in the north-west coast of West Australia, is the site of one of the biggest environmental struggles in Australia’s history, with plans to build the world’s largest gas plant on the pristine Kimberley coast north of the town dropped in 2013 after large scale protests. In a pivotal scene of Cut the Sky, archival documentary footage plays of other environmental protests in the Kimberley region, with Indigenous men in plaid shirts yelling at tractors. In another, a time-lapse of a mine, with tractors scurrying about, digging and raking in a vast pit, is projected ominously on the backdrop.
The show is also a triumph of intercultural exchange. At one point, Ngyiampaa Wangaypuwaan performer Eric Avery walks bare-chested to centre stage, frantically playing violin, whilst singing in the Ngyiampaa Wangaypuwaan language. It’s a breath-taking moment and an extraordinary display of contemporary and traditional skillsets. It’s also a rare access to a traditional language of Northern NSW that very few still speak.
However, one element that fell flat was some of the contemporary musical performances. The country blues numbers by the likes of Nick Cave and Buffalo Springfield, sung by sassy, high-heeled songstress Ngaire Pigram as she sashayed about wreathed in a plastic wrap, felt like an effort to blend some modern musical elements, but failed to showcase the best of the singers talents.
Overall the production is a beautiful yet disturbing warning to our country about what could happen if we ignore what the land is telling us. A kangaroo crawls slowly through toxic gas, figures clothed in plastic and garbage writhe and grapple through dance, a man tries in vain to ‘sing the rain’ to a dry, empty land- this is what our future could be and in some places already has become.
Cut The Sky is running at the Opera House as part of Sydney Festival from the 14-17 January.