Australia Day 1 begins with the most intense alarm clock experience I can ever remember, piercing through the jetlag. It’s 7.30 Perth time, which means that it’s just after midnight in London. Worth remembering that, according to my body clock, these days are nocturnal.
Michelle Broun from Art WA turns up at 8.50 with David Milroy. David is a writer, director and serious activist. It never ceases to amaze me how people from cultures other than our own are capable of such multi-faceted lives, while we specialise ourselves into oblivion. David tells me about his work with his ancestral community over Native Title issues, and the battles with the mining companies over land rights, sacred sites, ancient rock paintings and the like. The picture which emerges is very grim: people are bribed, conned, bullied and cajoled into giving up their traditional ownership. How are they supposed to resist the juggernaut of international capital? But David is remarkable in his approach: he talks about it as a performance, with himself as a comic trickster, doing all he can to outwit the lawyers and anthropologists who are drafted in to overcome the Aboriginal communities.
He has written a play called Windmill Baby, which has won just about every award going. He’s also, just in case I didn’t think he was enough of a polymath, written the music for it. And directed it. For Yirra-Yakkin, which – although Sam now runs it – was founded by David. It’s 10am on the first morning and already I feel totally humbled.
Over to the Yirra-Yaakin offices for a conference about repertoire and touring practicalities with Derek Nannup and Paul MacPhail. Then lunch with all three of them plus Bev from Jiriki, Michelle, and some of her Arts WA colleagues. Over the traditional Aboriginal curry (!) I tell them about some of the ideas behind the Festival, about the way audiences responded to Bullie’s House, and how that made me realise the intense need that Western countries are feeling for other ways of looking at and living in the world – for an ecologically appropriate culture, and a culture which allows many voices to be heard, while respecting tradition and wisdom. They especially like the point that the Festival needs to evolve out of a gathering of First Nations people later this year, in a creative environment. As Paul says: "We’d all been wondering why these wetjalas were doing this?" I think he got his answer.
Back to the hotel, where I talk to Duncan Ord, the Director of the Aboriginal Economic Development office. This is a man with a big budget – but it’s only big because it’s about commerce rather than art. Still, he’s very much in tune with our ideas, not least because he used to be a theatre administrator with Black Swan. There’s a serious case to make that an international festival will do a vast amount to develop the culture and the careers of the people and companies involved.
David re-appears, and drives me out to Edith Cowan University, where a young man called Maitland is showing a piece of performance art he’s created. It’s about the experience of being mixed race – and it’s incredibly experimental. Heiner Muller meets the didgeridoo.
A packed day…. Particularly since I also have to do a revised budget and schedule for Dilemma to email through to Nick at the Arts Council. During Maitland’s performance I have a sudden panic that I’ve got one of the figures wrong. Find out I haven’t. Decide I’d better do some serious sleeping.
Day 2 sees me on yet another plane, this time on an internal flight with Michelle to Broome. This little town in the Northern part of WA is a bit of a legend among Aboriginal people (and Australians generally). It’s also where my old chum Baamba lives – and as we pull in to Goolarri Media Enterprises, there he is to greet me. Baamba told me so much about Broome while we were doing Bullie’s House, and it’s great to meet him again on home territory. He’s had a leg amputated as a result of diabetes – but he’s walking well on the new one, and actually looks younger, leaner and healthier than he did in London. Over lunch we talk about some ideas for the Festival. Baamba is an elder, so it would be great to involve him, since he could also take a leading role in any ceremonial events we include. As I expected, he seems game for anything.
Dalisa Pigram turns up with a DVD of the new show she’s been working on with Stalker and its indigenous offshoot, Marrugeku. I saw Dalisa in a previous Stalker show, Incognita, at the Perth Festival in 2003, and was blown away. The director, Rachael Swain, uses dance, circus skills and wild music to create work which is distinctly Australian, and which also de-constructs being Australian. In the new piece, Burning Daylight, she’s collaborated more closely with Dalisa as an indigenous choreographer, with the Yarroo people and the rest of Broome’s extraordinary multicultural community, and with a choreographer from Burkina Faso for good measure. The work seems really incredible. I may have to move mountains to get it into the Festival (it’s a big, expensive piece) – but I guess that’s my job.
Dalisa says a lot of it comes from a sense that young people in Broome are losing touch with their background. I understand that. In spite of all the apparent political progress, there remains a deep sense of the prejudice against the traditional ways. This morning, as the plane was landing, Michelle was telling me about the many small indigenous communities in the area. The white man on the other side of me, who had said nothing through the whole flight, leaned in and hissed: "We call them mining sites".