Recently Sydney had a wild event that felt even crazier than usual. It was hot and sultry, 38°C on the balcony. The pressure was building. The sky got darker and darker, and with a bang that shook the house the thunder and rain were upon us. It was torrenting down, there was lightning, there were big drops threatening to turn to hail, the wind whipped all about and a strange darkness enveloped us.
At first the air remained hot in spite of the rain, and it all felt perfectly tropical, but then the temperature plummeted. As the storm moved on, little falls of rain continued; the day slipped away, and we hoped not to get soaked and chilled as we walked from the train station to the opera house for a performance.
We were actually pretty damp and chilly but it felt okay because we had gone to see ‘Cut the Sky’, a new production by the Marrugeku dance theatre group. The performance was described as ‘a dynamic fusion of dance, song, poetry and breathtaking visuals, featuring … heartfelt poetry and music’. It lived up to, and beyond, its promise.
The group is based in Broome (Kimberley region, Western Australia) and is made up of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal creative artists. The title refers to the ability of the Elder rainmakers to call up the rain, and to send it away again, too. I guess the rainmakers thought a good drenching was in order for opening night, perhaps to cheer on the performers, perhaps to remind the rest of us that these are great forces, not to be taken lightly.
The Kimberley rainmakers have been part of my cultural world since I started living with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory back in 1980. In that arid region of the tropical savanna the monsoon rains come from the west, that is, from the Kimberley. People in the Victoria River region of the Territory were somewhat in awe of the rainmakers.
The Kimberley coastal mobs experienced most of this rain first, and they were said to have the most powerful songs and rituals for rain-making. Their power was that of life and death: if no rain came in the wet season the country would suffer terribly, for there would likely be no rain until the following year.
I was interested in my Aboriginal teachers’ understandings of seasons, of course, and it was not too surprising that in this hot, dry country their annual cycle works at one level between the two big powers: sun and rain. When the sun is in the ascendence (the dry season in local vernacular), rain is hidden away. When the rains re-emerge and gain ascendence, the sun is hidden away (although rarely for long). Rain is understood as the action of the Rainbow Serpent, a figure of life and death throughout Australia.
These two great powers wrestle back and forth, and living beings have learned to live with extremes: from the desiccated aridity of late dry season to the flooded billabongs, swampy ground and rushing rivers of the wet season. You could die of thirst, or you could drown, each possibility is totally real and almost every year a few people (often but not always tourists) do die of failure to understand one or the other of the demanding regimes of this country.
Extremes are normal here, and they are interrupted occasionally by titanic events.
This is how it is: Australia is impacted by the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and by the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD). Monumental droughts and massive cyclones are part of the story. As I write, Cyclone Stan is leaving the Indian Ocean and heading across Western Australia. My friends in Broome are at the edge of it, but many coastal mobs will be well awash in strong rain.
One of the most famous is Cyclone Tracy which slammed down on Darwin on Christmas Eve (1974). It crossed over, turned around, and slammed the city again. Its energy, its focus on the major site of white Australian habitation in the far North, and its timing all marked it as something way out of the ordinary.
Why did Cyclone Tracy hit Darwin? Local Larakia people had an answer: in their view it was a hit against Whitefellas who were refusing to grant the Larakia people land rights. In other words, the cyclone had a social context.
Across the region from Darwin through the Kimberley, the cyclone became part of Aboriginal people’s repertoire of stories. Outside of Darwin, people also identified a social context for this titanic event, but they found meanings relevant to themselves. Over in the East Kimberley they made a whole corroboree about it. Gurirr Gurirr (Krill Krill) tells the story of the Cyclone through song, dance, painted boards, body paint, and tall headdresses. It is a wonderfully vivid corroboree in a region where Indigenous culture is already rich with ceremonies.
Gurirr Gurirr was taught to Aboriginal artist Rover Thomas by his mother a few months after she died. She told him of her travels, how she had seen what the Cyclone had done to Darwin, and how she wanted the story to be remembered by being performed. Aboriginal Elders in the Kimberley said that Gurirr Gurirr would teach Aboriginal people, young and old, to take the cyclone as a warning and to keep their knowledge and culture strong. Thomas’s work hangs in the National Gallery, and some of the paintings depict Cyclone Tracy.
Gurirr Gurirr is vivid, beautiful, energetic, and very much in the classic style.
Now: imagine a new Kimberley corroboree. Imagine a multi-media modern dance-theatre performance dedicated to rain and cyclones. Imagine that it addresses multiple dangers – climate change, mining, extinctions, exploitation.
‘Cut the Sky’ draws inspiration from the power of the rain and sun, the power of country, and the power of the Kimberly rainmakers and song makers. Dalisa Pigram and Rachael Swain are the collaborative creators of this awesome work. They write: ‘There is a sense that the cyclone has been circling us as we work. That it, in turn, has been listening to us, causing us to dance at the edge of the apocalypse.’
The performance has a direct focus both on ecological processes that degrade life on earth, and on their social corollaries: dispossession, violence, deceit and trauma. Throughout the five acts of the performance the dancers brought breath-taking energy to everything they did. Even the quiet moments were astonishingly intense.
Dalisa is a member of a gifted Broome family and the descendant of Bardi rainmakers. She holds and focuses space with every movement. To watch her solo work was to be in the presence of mesmerising artistry. She transformed herself and her connection with her audience, going beyond performance to become something far more rare, and beautiful, and sacred. Throughout her main solo, the anguish and anger of people who are under the weight of destruction came forth, and so did the defiance. ‘I was born for a reason’, she called out, moving in a heart-grabbing stretch between earth and sky. We were with her.
That place of connection became real and the dance became transformative. No longer was it an enactment of the powers of life, but rather it inhabited those highly charged powers. We were there.
There was a time not so long ago when most western-educated people would have scoffed at the idea of connections between human action and weather events. Now our knowledge of climate change reveals the hubris of thinking that our impacts don’t matter. The connectivities are clear, and so too are the responsibilities. We can’t honestly imagine that these big changes have nothing to do with us.
We are in the midst of extreme events, and on this continent the extremes are becoming gargantuan. We are in the midst of violence against the earth and earth’s living beings that seems almost (not always) impossible to stop. We are in the midst of on-going dispossession, greed and deceit, and in our bad dreams we know the frenzy, despair, defiance, and power that ‘Cut the Sky’ brings to life for us. We know it, we need to know it, and we need to be sure that we remember what we know along with recognising that there is much that we don’t know.
I don’t want to spoil the ending of ‘Cut the Sky’, but I can say that leaving the theatre I felt strong. The final act, ‘Dreaming the Future’, put us in the midst of the enduring presence of country, this time overwhelming us with the power of this land of gift. I came home feeling blessed.
© Deborah Bird Rose (2016)
*Photographs provided by Marrugeku. All rights reserved.
To see a clip of ‘Cut the Sky’, including a small segment of Dalisa’s solo, view here. For more on Marrugeku, view here. To see a clip of Dalisa’s solo Gudirr Gudirr (not to be confused with Gurrir Gurrir), view here.
To see the Bardi dancers in action, view here.
To learn more about the Indigenous knowledge of weather and seasons mentioned in this essay, see my article ‘Rhythms, Patterns, Connectivities’.