Dance, Reviews, Stage, Theatre

Sydney Festival: Cut the Sky review

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Since its first hit two decades ago, when those Mimi spirits came stalking out of the Kimberley region on their long stilts, this now Broome-based company Marrugeku has been one to watch. Always a collaboration between indigenous and non-indigenous inspiration and expertise, its latest show, Cut the Sky, now draws on interdisciplinary skills from around the globe.  
And that’s surely right for a show attempting to deal with local and international complexities around climate change.
As Mimi did before, Cut the Sky premiered at the the Perth International Arts Festival, and has already toured to the venues of three of its overseas producers, in Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany. It’s an astonishing 70-minute mix of dance, music, song, poetry, panoramas, film and environmental drama. Its sum though is oddly less than its parts.
Arguably the best element is the choreography, and from the start in the desert when the cast of six portray – and play the victims of – a massive cyclone. Tossed by wind, and after stampeding as maddened wildlife, the dancers of this apocalyptic world retreat to their plastic hovels around the one centre piece of the stage: a huge gas pipeline embedded into the floor.
Kimberley visual artist and poet Edwin Lee Mulligan is a quietly compelling speaker as his poetry paints his picture of country and the story of climate change through an Aboriginal lens. Around him the indigenous and non-indigenous dancers morph from mining workers in their fluoros, to protesters, a geologist, a sex worker, a displaced traditional owner and spirits: sometimes the distinction is unclear.
A unifying force is the diva artistry of singer Ngaire Pigram, skimpily dressed like a showgirl and gowned in a found sheet of blue plastic. Sometimes under-voiced but moving, she brings heart to songs by Ngairre, Buffalo Springfield, Nick Cave and Mulligan (in language).
Music, dance and poetry unite beautifully in Mulligan’s story of the gas buried in his spirit country, the story of Dungkabah or Poison Woman. As he explains her dangerous and lusty nature, caring for country but threatening death, the diminutive indigenous dancer Dalisa Pigram flashes angry hips and moves powerfully in paralytic spasms, as though chemically possessed.
Elsewhere, blond dancer Miranda Wheen in a plastic jumpsuit twists and leaps, scratching frenetically and seeming to mutate, as she gabbles about science and a deep earth soundscape rumbles. This unique choreography – ground-centred, character informed and ablaze with frenzied realism – is a collaboration between Dalisa Pigram and Belgium’s Serge Aime Coulibaly, originally from West Africa. For his part at least, you can see his signature  from working with Belgium’s Les Ballet C de B and the energetic storytelling of Moroccan-born choreographer Sid Larbi Cherkaoui. Anxiety is always close.
Josh Mu is also a powerfully agile dancer, especially to the solo violin picked up by fellow dancer Eric Avery, offering a startling moment of music not recorded.
Meanwhile the music segues from touches of jazz to rock to country, as the panoramas shift from amazing outback desert beauty to overseas images of climate change disaster in Japan, Aceh and Thailand. All is projected on a huge stressed, marked backsheet blending perfectly against the sparse set (and costumes) from Stephen Curtis. Lighting man Damien Cooper plays with shadows of doom but illuminates, and director Rachael Swain masterfully juggles all elements.
On screen we are projected back to filmed 1980 protests by the Noonkanbah people against mining and the duplicitous words of then WA politician, Bill Grayden. The miners, he says, are unavoidable and they come in friendship.
This lengthy segment raises predictable if justified scorn in the audience but, for me, the link between past local events in the Kimberley and current international disaster was here beginning to fray. Despite the international thematic ambition (and creative credits) of Cut The Sky, the vastness and complexities of climate change proves a hard act to communicate.
Instead, against this fearful background, Marrugeku artfully delivers a strikingly rendered indigenous perspective on a local environmental outrage. As a dancer in a giant kangaroo head frets and struggles to leap across the stage into the smoke, it’s a powerful accomplishment well worth experiencing.
[box]Cut the Sky is at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until January 17. Featured image by Prudence Upton[/box]

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