Intercultural Collaboration and the Responsibilities of Representation: Dalisa Pigram

Dalisa is a Yawuru, Bardi woman born and raised in Broome, Western Australia. She is a mother of four and is the Co-Artistic Director of Marrugeku (since 2008). Dalisa worked with Marrugeku on their first production, Mimi, and has been a co-devising performer across Marrugeku’s productions, touring extensively overseas and throughout Australia. Dalisa is also a Yawuru language teacher at Cable Beach Primary School in her hometown of Broome and is committed to the maintenance of Indigenous language and culture through the arts and education.

In this dialogue with fellow Yawuru, Bardi and Kija woman and documentary film writer and director, Kimberley Benjamin, Dalisa reflects on the value of intercultural collaboration in performance works and the unique beginnings of Marrugeku, grounding us in the importance of place-based processes and shared responsibility.

Kimberley: What would you consider best practice in the work you do?

As a Yawuru, Bardi woman starting off in the arts at 18 years old surrounded by people with a common goal, our intercultural processes have been a part of our practice from day one. We’ve had almost 30 years of fine-tuning those processes and learning from every experience we’ve had, trying to tell stories together as Non-Indigenous and Indigenous peoples with a First Nations focus. So obviously, our common goal is to bring forth Indigenous voices and Aboriginal perspectives and give voice to marginalised communities, but also, in order to help keep our culture going forward, to capture those very important and diverse stories that our First Nations communities hold. Capturing those to bring them forward with us in an artistic way and in a collaborative way with artists who come from all walks of life and cultures.

Marrugeku was formed and founded in the community of Gunbalanya in Arnhem land, a place where the mimih  spirits come from. And we had the privilege of working with Storyholders and Songholders for the Mimi project:Kunwinjku Elders, Thompson Yulidjirri specifically and Bruce Nabegeyo. Working with those Elders and with other artists at a young age, you develop a sense of responsibility. Best practice is to accept that responsibility – where you sit in the group. In the beginnings, coming from a very culturally diverse place like Broome, I was equipped with the ability to be a middle person, like a bit of a translator if you like; funnily, I’ve now ended up in language, translating ideas, concepts and Aboriginal ways of knowing and being because this is what we grow up with, this is what we understand – not because we’ve been explicitly taught, but because it’s part of who we are as Aboriginal people.

In those situations, you can see the cultural gap of understanding between non-Indigenous people and remote Indigenous people and the urban small town community people that were involved in the project. My role was trying to distil ideas and promote understanding of what we were actually trying to do in our art form. So not just to speak to one another but to translate those ideas into the form of storytelling that we were trying to develop – at that time, outdoor physical theatre, large-scale.

While making Crying Baby (our second production), we were working with people like Warwick Thornton, fresh out of film school, in those early days. He had an ability to bring that media into live performance and to depict certain aspects of the story that you can’t capture physically, like the travelling of the sun or the way that Aboriginal people’s minds work. Being part of a team of people that are collaborating to bring those ideas and strongly promote our Indigenous perspectives reveals that best practice emerges from learning. But also from taking responsibility for one another, for the art that you make, for the relationships that you’re building.

As a fairly established company, we’ve gone through stages of that where you capture that process in some way like an Arnhem Land context, then you move to a more diverse community like Broome, and you start again and you open those understandings up further. The fabric of our community has a long history with connections to Asia because of the pearling industry and the exemption from the White Australia Policy. So, working interculturally is not just simply about black and white; it’s about valuing all culture and everyone’s stories and the diversity and the complexities of those stories, not just your standard idea of what that can be. A medium like dance theatre allows you to dream those things up in a way that is open because of the processes and the preparation that we do to allow people to be free to explore.

Kimberley: It’s so beautiful to hear, I’ve never heard ‘best practice’ answered in that way and I think it’s because of the uniqueness of Marrugeku – I wondered if you could tell me more about the history of Marrugeku and your involvement?

Marrugeku was born out of an idea of choreographer, Michael Leslie, a Kamilaroi/Mandandanji man. He was my dance teacher at Perth’s Aboriginal Musical Theatre, now the theatre course at WAAPA. Michael actually saw stilt company – ‘Stalker Theatre’ – which [Marrugeku’s] Co-Artistic Director, Rachel Swain, was performing in, along with David Clarkson and Emily McCormack, at a Perth Festival. He’d long had a burning idea involving stilts, which he’d seen in the 70s in African traditional stilt dance; the form resembled the mimih spirits from Arnhem Land, and it could give shape to that story. They collaborated on creating a piece based on this concept, and one of his conditions was to train up young Indigenous people, and I was invited. So, Marrugeku didn’t set out to be a company that was going to conquer the world; it was the product of this collaboration between Rachel and Michael, and the name/company emerged to reflect that collaborative nature for the project. They worked with Elders and that community to lay the ground for what was to be explored.

We worked in that community on and off over about eight years, making two large-scale works. It was project based funding, so it wasn’t like the company had strong financial legs to stand on; but the work got popular so quickly – we went from touring Arnhem Land to the next tour going international.

In those years we were performing to thousands of people a night because of the scale of the outdoor physical theatre world and Summer festivals in Europe. It was big, but we discovered that it wasn’t the only thing that interested us: as a group, we’ve embarked on this journey to work together, to find the right mediums, try to find the right forms of storytelling, to strengthen the memory of these things, these stories that old people were getting concerned with disappearing.

So, then, how do we look at that in contemporary forms too? Not just Dreaming stories or not just of the old world, but how do we bring that old world into the way that we look at this new world? The inspiration for the second piece we made after Mimi was suggested by Thompson Yulidjirri, the Elder. He was a visionary, he could see where we go next – in his vision, everybody’s got stories, whitefellas too. He related the Stolen Generation to when the first settlers came out, how lost they were without a connection to this Country. Then that juxtaposed with the fact that our children were taken away and displaced, and then the more contemporary stories of how that affects little ones today. He related that to a Dreaming story that he is custodian for: ‘The Crying Baby’, which is an orphan dreaming story about a young boy that was neglected by the two tribes that were meant to be caring for him and his brother and how the Rainbow Serpent brought a Big Flood that came as punishment.

We immersed ourselves into the story, in the research of how we take on all of this information and the responsibility to bring that out in an artistic way through choreography. We did this as a collective – it wasn’t one person at the front telling everybody what to do because they had a vision, it was like, listen to this old manand listen to these people who hold that story and everybody brings their strength to work out the best way to do this for this old man and this community, bringing in leaders in their fields without the technology we can use now.

Kimberley: Tell us more about this responsibility of representation…

Around 2003, we relocated to Broome and began from the start again. Trevor Jamieson, Aunty Lorrae Coffin and myself were based in Broome, and we’d encouraged people to come to Broome because it has so many possibilities for story. It felt like a natural progression after telling Kunwinjku story to start to look to find those ‘other stories’ – we were really looking and considering, do we keep feeding into the exotified “this is Indigenous dance”? Do we want to keep feeding into that story and form or are there other stories we can bring up and explore in other forms?

Being within my own community, I took on that responsibility of making sure it’s done the right way from the beginning. So, first and foremost, speaking with (pop) Pat Dodson for guidance firstly as my grandfather, then as a political leader, philosopher and a Yawuru loreman; in our conversations he just has to give an overview of our past and Broome’s connection to that history and we’re already dreaming up so many ideas. He’s always our starting point when we’re researching and trying to put the finger on the pulse of this place. Not just him of course, but specific Elders that are connected to and hold knowledge for the conceptual ideas that we’re looking at. We’ve consulted with many who are no longer with us now sadly.

‘Burning Daylight’ was our first Broome production, and it took us so long to make that piece because it was recalibrating to a new community, to a new art form. We were trying to influence the dance with the right languages: we did this by honouring each artist in the room with us, honouring their stories, their mixed heritages, the languages in their body that come from their culture and their specific cultural affiliations then, working with an improvisational, task-based approach to developing choreography. It’s a smorgasbord of material and ideas that you can then work with to shape in a more productive way to gain a movement language or a grammar that we can then tell our stories with.

We talked with senior Yawuru Elders like Jalbi Elsie Edgar mob who hold knowledge for dance and song and other Elders as well to ask of their concerns; and no matter if they were Yawuru, Japanese, Malay, they were all concerned for young people and the lack of their connection to the rich culture in Broome.

Small communities like this with a very unique history (being exempt from the White Australia Policy) can reflect how Australia could have been. We can uncover and explore certain lived experiences and conceptual ideas informed by culture that can offer ways into subject matter and offer ways of thinking to the rest of the world.

Our ways of being connected to Country are complex; Stolen Generation or not, when people are on their Country, they are connected, and when away from Country, you’re longing for it. It’s the strength of the drive that led us to focus on that in our labs, yearning for something that you never got, or having Country and carrying it forward.That’s why we’re proud to say we’re an intercultural Indigenous company, because we are guided by Aboriginal ways of knowing and being, but we are deliberately working together with non-Indigenous people to practise a shared responsibility to do that work against a dominant culture that keeps the marginalised down. It’s not for everyone but I wish the rest of Australia and the government would take a leaf out of our book sometimes.

Kimberley: We can see why people get drawn to Broome… As you were speaking, I was reflecting on myexperience in the arts and film worlds over the past 6 years – there’s still that extraction of our stories andpeople not collaborating properly. I’m in awe of the way that Marrugeku works, listening and responding to community and the strength of building truly place-based story.

It just keeps coming back to responsibility: to be good in your liyan, to go to sleep at night and wake up with no worries, you have to make sure everything has been done right and clear. The repercussions for doing the wrong thing, shall we say, are instilled in us in the Kimberley – for example, if you don’t turn the rock back over after getting your bait, 10 million little animals don’t have that home, so look after it or you’re spoiling it for others. There has to be deep listening and respect when telling someone else’s story as an outsider: am I even allowed to put these stilts on to dance traditional dance? I’ve got to ask my own mob. There’s cultural processing going on just to step on the dance floor or just to sit in a specific place that non-Indigenous people are surprised to learn!

The first place we toured was Arnhem land, to show them all what we made first, and it instigated so much passion and inspiration in other communities for contemporary forms of storytelling and showcase the amazing dance that exists in these regions and across Australia. It’s our responsibility to consider our audiences: who’s seeing these things? Why should our people miss out? We’re making that for them. That’s their story, it has to always come back to them. We want to show communities that contemporary dance is an option and text-based theatre and music are not the only way; it’s another language to tell your story.

Kimberley: Yeah, that’s something I definitely relate to, having to work within a structure for a wider audience – they always ask who the target audience is, and you always want to reply that it’s for our mob! But sometimes the structures don’t favour that.

I was thinking about how development in itself is as important as the product, the end result, especially with ‘No   Burning Daylight’. It’s so healing for our young mob to have those opportunities and be engaged with those conversations.

You’re spot on. It was a lot of work to earn structural funding and get more support and resourcing. It used to take three or four years to make a piece, nowadays, probably two or three – you need to give it time and space and do the work properly, but people often want the result quicker than you’re willing to have it.

Since 2008, I’ve been Co-Artistic Director with Rachael. She’s quite a visionary. We started thinking smarter – let’s do that lab, spend that time going deep into listening to Country or dance dramaturgy and contested land; it’s all information the artists have to draw from. For example, the Listening to Country lab led to ‘Cut the Sky’, which explored Aboriginal perspectives on climate change. It speaks just as strongly today as it did over six years ago, because it wasn’t just about listening – it emerged from a conversation with my pop who challenged us with the question of what happens when you don’t listen.

Kimberley: As we wrap up, I wondered if you wanted to talk about what changes you’ve seen in the industry over the years and what you hope to see in the future?

Because Marrugeku’s done things a bit differently from the beginning, I couldn’t always make sense of the problems in the industry. It’s a breath of fresh air to see other emerging collectives and companies collaborating across mediums. There are reasons why that process does work in, for example, the film world:

Kimberley: Yeah, you really see that in Marrugeku’s work, like in ‘Cut the Sky’ you had Edwin Lee Mulligan with his spoken word and Eric Avery playing violin.

All dance and forms of dance that are from multiple cultures should be valued. There’s a responsibility of not watering down what our traditional dance forms are – they’re very diverse and distinct and there isn’t one “Aboriginal dance.” And we have responsibilities when using those forms in finding new dance languages for our bodies to tell stories. We’ve been on a bit of a pathway to try to get people to be thinking about place. We are on contested land. We’re in Australia: wherever you dance, underneath the tarkett and the concrete and in the studio or out in Country, you are still on Country; in your processes, you need to acknowledge that and you need to think about that.

Kimberley: Even if you’re dancing – for whatever purpose or whatever story – it’s connected to Country…

It can offer so much. I love hearing about and seeing what people that are connecting with those elements are creating. I think there can be a fear of stepping away from what’s expected from contemporary dance companies in Australia and fear of not meeting the expectations of their audiences. But be brave, that’s what art is about. Surround yourself with the people you need to say what you want to say. Think about who you want to say it to and speak in the language you choose. Undertake a process that thoroughly prepares you.


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