Friday, June 29, 2007

Zero Culture

For the last few months, we've been sharing the Wood Green office with Bilimankwe Arts and Zero Culture. The idea is that the three companies collaborate in a Consortium, which is proving very fruitful as Kate from Bilimankwe takes on the producer's role for Dilemma. Last night we went to see Zero Culture's show Find Me Amongst the Black at the Purcell Room on the South Bank: and started to see some real points of contact there too.

Zero Culture is run by Hardial S. Rai, who I've known ever since we took Bravely Fought the Queen to Watermans in the very early days of the company. He was running the Asian programme there at the time, and was very helpful in my first ventures into Asian casting. One of his recommendations, Harmage Singh Kalarai, who played Jiten, is there for the show. So are Suman Bhuchar and Shobana Jeyasingh, plus Manoj from Collage Arts, who it turns out formed London's first Asian theatre company with Hardial and Harmage, way back in the 70s before even Tara. But the evening is no nostalgic reunion: it feels very contemporary. Hardial has brought together a text by Parv Bancil, based on the background to the 2005 Birmingham riots, with choreography by Darshan Singh Bhuller and some really fantastic video work by KMA. It's very edgy, very current, and manages to bring traditional forms into the present moment without being at all self-conscious about the fact. It feels right to be in a consortium with this company.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Back from the Dreaming

Back in England to hear the latest news from Australia: John Howard has decided to ban sales of alcohol and pornography in Aboriginal communities across the Northern Territory. By all means have some sort of prohibition if it's going to solve a problem - particularly if it's related to child pornography and child abuse - but don't racialise that prohibition! What makes him think Aboriginal people are more likely to be corrupted by malign influences than white people? Racism, that's what.

Interestingly, through my four days at the Dreaming Festival, I had precisely one half of lager. The atmosphere, although it was celebratory, and at times wild, just didn't seem to need alcoholic fuelling. The culture alone was enough.

I'm intending to write quite extensively about this Festival elsewhere, so here's just a few cultural highlights and recommendations:

Ngapartji Ngapartji: somewhere between a lesson in indigenous language, a sing-along and a tragic re-telling of Aboriginal history, this is an amazing project which has been developed between a Scott Rankin's activist company Big hArt, the actor Trevor Jamieson (another of Bev Webb's boys) and the Pitjantjatjara people from around Alice Springs. A rare example of community work of the most valuable kind which really does turn into the highest quality theatre. And there's a language website too.

Sunset to Sunrise: a beautiful and simple film by Allan Collins, in which an elder spends a night in the bush with his two sons, and talks about the changes he's seen during his lifetime, and the decline of the old culture.

Bigotbri Ladies: every prejudice caricatured. I saw a great set they did about the food at the Festival - which was intercultural and so not to their liking....

Indigie Femme: two women, one Navajo, one Polynesian, who have beautiful voices and sing about a better world.

A Sister's Love: a really amazing film by the festival's director Rhoda Roberts, which deals with the murder of her sister Lois. Aside of the personal tragedy, which is very intense, it's also an extraordinary indictment of the ongoing racism in Australian society - a society which assumes that when an Aboriginal person disappears, they have just "gone walkabout".

This year's Festival fell on the 40th anniversary of the 1967 referendum: the moment when the Aboriginal people were admitted as citizens of Australia. Prior to that, they were categorised as "flora and fauna". They may be acknowledged as human now - but there is still a very long way to go.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Broome and Perth

A tropical evening in Broome, and Uncle Baamba rolls up at the Mangrove Hotel to take me out. My one night here happens to coincide with the opening of an exhibition commemorating 100 years of the presence in the Kimberley of the Sisters of St. John of God. In 1907, a handful of Irish nuns, with no knowledge of Aboriginal people, appeared in the north of Western Australia, fuelled by nothing but missionary zeal and charity. Although they now wear simple modern clothes, and for some time wore white cotton habits, the first nuns were clad in heavy black wool from head to toe, with a train for good measure. Given that it’s 35C today, and this is the winter, they must have been stifled. “No wonder they were a bit grumpy”, says Baamba.

When we were doing Bullie’s House, it was very apparent that Baamba knew a lot about mission stations, priests and anthropologists. Now it’s clear why – he went to school on one. He shows me pictures of his mother as a novice nun (who never took her final vows!), himself as a boy in the dilapidated school-house; he introduces me to his numerous cousins, nephews and nieces, and his “favourite teacher”, who is an ageing nun. I’m always wary of evangelism in any form – but there is something very touching about this community and its place in this region. Not least the fact that, if indigenous people had not come here, they would have been massacred in the bush. Michelle tells me that Aboriginal people were being hunted for sport as recently as the 1970s; and that there was a conspiracy of silence to protect the perpetrators.

It takes us a while to find a restaurant which is still open at the late hour of 8.30pm, but finally get a Chow Mein in the local Chinese. It’s BYO (bring your own), so we drink water with it. There are lots of Chinese people here, as well as Malay and Japanese. Broome was exempt from the white Australia policy, as a step to encourage Asian people here to man the pearl luggers. Hence the incredible mix of races. Dalisa is part Aboriginal and part Malay. Jimmy Chi, the playwright and musician, is Aboriginal, Japanese, Chinese and Scottish – one quarter to each grandparent. Baamba had a Japanese step-father, and used to be allowed into the pubs when other Aboriginals were not, because the Japanese were regarded as closer to white. “Besides”, he chortles, “they had to let me in, ‘cos nobody else could play ‘em any music”.

We trundle across the road to the Roebuck Tavern, made famous by Jimmy Chi in Bran Nue Dae – the Aboriginal musical with its roots in Broome, in which Baamba played Uncle Tadpole; a character I suspect was modelled rather closely on himself. Sadly, the cliché of the alcoholic Aboriginal is much in evidence here. As we sit on the veranda, waiting for a taxi, they lurch and stagger around us. It doesn’t feel dangerous or threatening – just rather pathetic. And horribly understandable. There are people in this state whose first contact with the wider world was only a few decades ago. Now, even in this incredibly remote little town (two and a half hours’ flight from Perth, which is itself the world’s most remote big city), there are numerous cars, internet cafés, cinemas, tourists, and flashing corporate logos. And alcohol. It’s hardly surprising that people should have such a deep sense of displacement.

And yet, there is so much here that is positive in the community’s development and efforts towards sustainability. Baamba’s own work at Goolarri and in education (he’s one of the founders of Notre Dame University here) is extraordinary. Michelle takes me to Magabala Books – an independent Indigenous publisher. We browse through galleries of traditional art, wondering at the throbbing, shimmering vitality of these Dreaming-inspired paintings. And, of course, there was Bran Nue Dae. At the airport, I spot a CD of the music, which I have never heard – and snap it up.

Back in Perth for one evening, which I spend with Heath Bergersen, who played Bullie himself, and Bev Webb, his adopted mother, agent, and our Australian Associate Producer on the project. Both Heath and Baamba have the most incredible memories, and remind me of things which happened during that 2004 tour which I’d long since consigned to my internal recycle bin. There’s much laughter, and a little sadness over the death of Kevin Costello. It does us good to talk about him. I’d been a bit wary, because I know some indigenous Australians resist talking about the dead – but both Baamba and Heath initiate the subject with the generosity born from a shared loss.

Up early, and dash round to the Post Office, to collect a parcel of material from Bain Stewart, who is Leah Purcell’s partner and manager at Bungabura Productions. And now here I am on yet another plane, this time to Brisbane. I should be meeting Leah and Bain on Tuesday. In the meantime, I’m off to the Festival of the Dreaming.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Perth and Broome

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".

Monday, June 04, 2007

Stepping towards the Indigenous

I'm writing this in a hotel room in Perth, WA. Another hotel room! This time I'm in Australia as the guest of the Australia Council, with a view to programming indigenous work into the Origins Festival. Great to know these ideas are being taken so seriously.

This sort of work has been an emerging theme over the last few weeks. First we has Sam Cook's workshop at the Laboratory, and then last Thursday I drove up to Cambridge to see Miria George's play and what remains.... as part of the Pasifika Styles Festival. Miria is a Maori, who runs a Wellington-based company called Tawata Productions with a writer and director called Hone Kouka. It's an incredibly provocative piece of work - based on the idea of the last Maori leaving New Zealand a few years into a dystopian future. If it sounds far-fetched, Miria points out that she wrote it in response to legislation in 2005 which forbade Maori ownership of seashore land. Which sounds very like ongoing colonialism in the 21st century.

What was really striking about the play was the way in which Hone had given "voice" to the almost silent Maori character of Mary through her use of traditional gestural language. There's a great moment when she opens her suitcase, and we see it's full of earth. She gets in, and dances in the earth: a dance of eloquent despair. Hone and Miria came to the Laboratory on Saturday, and did a workshop for us around this way of working. As often in the past, I'm struck by the pervasive nature of performative activity in First Nations cultures. We find ourselves strutting like birds, singing laments, performing hakkas, and all with a theatrical meaning and intention behind them. It's very much helped by the fact that half the people attending are themselves Maori - there's a clear and deep loyalty to the home culture among Maori people living in England.

On the plane coming here - it's a very long flight - I saw a new film called Ten Canoes, with an entirely Aboriginal cast. Again, there's an amazing sense of culture and performance as being the heart of everything. There's a wonderful sequence of a Makarrata ritual, with two members of a tribe that has given offence facing the spears of the offended, dancing magically as they dodge them. And, when one, Ridjimiraril, has been hit and mortally wounded, he performs a long and agonizing dance of death; like the one David Gulpilil (who narrates this film) does in Walkabout. It's a very beautiful film - and has filled me with excitement about the next few days.