Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts
March 13 – 15 2014
Reviewed by Ruth Ridgway
‘… we’re sending out a message by dancing and sharing our culture, dance, songs. There’s many youth out there that needs a leader, a role model and we’re here – we’re here to help.’
Baykali Ganambarr, Djuki Mala Dancer
Music and dance are part of daily life in the small community of Elcho Island, just off the coast of the Northern Territory. Elcho Island is the home of the Aboriginal dance company Djuki Mala (formerly the Chooky Dancers), a small group of male dancers currently taking their self-titled show around Australia on their biggest national tour so far.
On their first night in Brisbane, the performers had the audience stamping, cheering and whistling through the show, and giving a standing ovation at the end. Artistic Director and Producer, Joshua Bond, introduced the performance during a short chat with the audience, exhorting us to make lots of noise to show our support and appreciation of the dancers, and presenting the performance as ‘an energy exchange’ between us and the performers. This friendly informal approach suited the theme of ‘sharing culture’ underlying the show.
The company is inspiring, entertaining, and very funny. They combine traditional dance and contemporary dance, as well as popular dance including hiphop, new jack swing and Bollywood. The dancers haven’t been drilled into uniformity, but retain their individual styles.
The dance numbers are interspersed with segments of film; individual dancers talking about what they do and why. Elder Margaret Nyungunyungu is also featured, speaking with a quiet strength and dignity, and showing her commitment to the dancers and to their culture. (Nyungunyungu’s late husband was the group’s first manager.)
The film segments gave the show its context and continuity, with the speakers emphasising their wish to share their culture, and the dancers’ desire to be role models for the young people in their community. The sincerity and naturalness of the speakers make a big impact. Complementing the message in the film, a flyer available in the theatre foyer promoted the work of the Mental Health Association of Central Australia in suicide prevention, with the endorsement of Djuki Mala.
The show opens with a traditional dance, a serious piece with the film behind showing scenes of the dancers’ country. Later, Djuki Mala’s signature piece Zorba the Greek Yolngu style brings the house down! This is the piece that made the Chooky Dancers famous: the clip on YouTube now has over 2,362,000 views. Combining traditional dance in unexpected ways with a techno remix of Zorba the Greek, and using lots of hip and upper body movements, this piece is cheeky and very funny. A Bollywood parody (with the dancers in short gold sarongs over their shorts, gold turbans and sunglasses) also had the audience laughing, as did a Michael Jackson impersonation.
Singing in the Rain, complete with coloured umbrellas, celebrates rain and reinterprets the original inspiration from the film featuring Gene Kelly. The footage playing behind the dancers features children and young people in the community literally dancing and playing in heavy rain and red mud.
The dancers have fun at the end with a Motown mashup, using parts of songs such as Save the Last Dance for Me, The Great Pretender and My Girl. Wearing dark suits, they lip-synch the songs and danced the popular moves of the era.
The Djuki Mala performance was preceded by a short, traditionally inspired work for a group of around 12 dancers from the Brisbane-based Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts (ACPA), which was wonderful to see but added unnecessary length to the show overall.
The informal feel of the performance was refreshing, but it would have been good to have a printed program (even one photocopied page). This would have helped the company get its message across even better, and given the audience some information about the dancers and the pieces we were seeing.