This article is a collaborative weaving of critical discourse and reflections on Dance and Cultural Dramaturgies in Contested Land—two practice-led and (inter)culturally informed research laboratories that took place on Yawuru Country (Broome) in May 2022 and Gadigal and Bidiagal Country (Sydney) in July 2023. Presented by Marrugeku, an Indigenous and intercultural performance company, the laboratories located questions of dance dramaturgy in the contested land that is danced on to engage the cultural perspectives and experiences of those who create it. The following article unpacks the laboratory model to share approaches that might be applied in other situations of dramaturgical experiment.
Keywords: dance dramaturgy, Indigenous, intercultural, Marrugeku, trans-Indigenous, performance research
This article is a collaborative weaving of critical discourse and reflection unpacking two research laboratories, Dance and Cultural Dramaturgy in Contested Land, which took place on Yawuru Buru, Rubibi (Broome) in May 2022 and Gadigal and Bidiagal lands (Sydney) in July 2023. We curated the research model through our roles as Co-Artistic Directors of Marrugeku, Australia’s leading Indigenous intercultural dance and theatre company. Working together from our distinct positions––as Yawuru /Bardi/ Malay/ Filipino dancer and choreographer Dalisa Pigram and Anglo-Pākehā director and dramaturg Rachael Swain––we have co-created trans-disciplinary and intercultural performance over almost three decades. These collaborations have been undertaken with Kunwinjku and Yawuru cultural custodians and co-devising artists from many disciplines, many Indigenous Nations and diverse settler backgrounds.
The labs are an extension of these experiences and part of our wider project to foster understanding about the entangled connections between making, performing and witnessing dance and the land the work is created on, which we understand as “Country.” As an Indigenous Australian understanding of place, this can include the geographic landscape as well as time, other species, atmospheres, minerals and cultural responsibilities.
For this article, we invited our dear friend and colleague Tia Reihana (Ngāti Hine) as Kairangahau (researcher) to co-write with us. Tia joined the second lab on Gadigal and Bidiagal Lands in 2023 to help gather observations, run informal interviews with participants and reflect on the process for this article. Our shared aim is unpacking the laboratory model itself as a practice-led and culturally informed research methodology. Although there is much to discuss in the work of dismantling and reframing dramaturgy, our focus in this article is rather to share the research methodology to support other culturally situated contexts for choreographic experimentation. On the first day of the first lab, the process was explained as “janyba” (Yawuru: sharing/transmission/care) by Yawuru leader Dianne Appleby in recognition of this and other research Marrugeku had undertaken with diverse groups of artists to address shared questions. This intention to open out complex questions of dance and cultural dramaturgies to unpack them with a wider group of leading artists as an offering of “transmission with care” was extended in the second lab, and continues in this article.
The conceptual frameworks for the research laboratories were curated with our long-term dramaturgical collaborators: senior Yawuru leader Patrick Dodson, who collaborates as Marrugeku’s primary cultural dramaturg, and Belgian dance dramaturg Hildegard de Vuyst. This unique cultural and dramaturgical collaboration between the four of us has extended over ten years. Beginning with Marrugeku’s first dramaturgical research lab, Listening to Country, in 2013, the collaboration conceptually underpinned Marrugeku’s award winning productions Cut the Sky (2015) and Jurrungu Ngan-ga (2022).
Marrugeku’s intercultural model has evolved as a natural expression of the founding of the company in, and with, the Kunwinjku community in West Arnhem Land, a remote region of the Northern Territory that has been a designated Aboriginal reserve since 1931. During this period (1994-2002), the Kunwinjku knowledge holders who led and performed in the work oversaw the trans-Indigenous and intercultural experiment applied to embody and visualise Kunwinjku story, song and dance. Marrugeku relocated to Rubibi (Broome) in 2003, to the lands of the Yawuru people in the northwest of Western Australia. There, the multicultural histories and contemporary experience of the Indigenous/Asian community of Broome became a rich site for the company’s ongoing intercultural development. These two Nation-specific and intercultural collaborative contexts have deeply informed Marrugeku’s performance-making and dramaturgical practice. From such experiences, we have evolved devising methods that acknowledge and actively navigate each artist’s plural loyalties to multiple cultural backgrounds, while also foregrounding the cultural custodianship and guidance of the Traditional Owners on whose lands we work. These histories inform the approach of the research laboratories to curate activities that engage artists in researching their own cultural and disciplinary frameworks as an extension of their own cultural backgrounds, communities and responsibilities.
Participants were invited in small working groups of established collectives across dance, performance art, theatre and the visual arts and from urban, regional, remote and very remote locations. They included Indigenous artists from many Nations across Australia, Aotearoa, Canada, and Morocco, as well as artists from diverse Australian settler backgrounds, including Filipino, Palestinian, Javanese, and Anglo diasporas. The five working groups in the lab in Rubibi in 2022 expanded to eight working groups in the lab on Gadigal Country in 2023, each with one to four collaborators. Our curatorial framework provided guidance for each group to approach the processes from their own cultural position as guests on Yawuru and Gadigal Country, and within their workings groups that we understood as Nation-specific, trans-Indigenous, intercultural and/or intersectional collaborations. We invited lead artists and then provided the resources for each of them to invite, in turn, a small team of practitioners with whom they could collaborate. In some cases, choreographers invited a selection of dancers that they often work with. In others, where they were performers themselves, they invited a composer or video artist or both. Some of the groups were established collectives who co-create their performance practice with artists from a range of disciplines. One lead artist took the opportunity to establish a new collaboration.
Enabling the discovery of new creative and cultural pathways in a framework of janyba requires working with care and respect to support cultural safety and well-being, while also cultivating the right conditions for artistic and cultural interpretation, risk, and experiment. At the beginning of each lab, we addressed both Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property (ICIP) and other Cultural and Intellectual Property (CIP) considerations for non-Indigenous artists, and shared the key points of Marrugeku’s own policies, stating:
We respect that individual artists may experiment with their own cultural forms and that we may learn from each other’s approaches, which may resonate in our own choreographic, theatrical or visual processes. We understand that we may apply or extend these approaches to develop new pathways to contemporary practice and reposition them within our own context of cultural authority. However, we acknowledge that this is different from performing or interpreting someone else’s cultural movements, song, design story etc, without permission, direct transmission and guidance. We do not support such practices.Marrugeku ICIP Policy 2022
Meeting on Contested Land
The overarching theme of “contested land” was applied in both the lab in Rubibi in 2022 and the lab in Gadigal and Bidiagal Country in 2023. Acknowledging that all of us, from our diverse Indigenous and settler backgrounds, meet on unceded and contested land, is a framework for inclusion and highlights our distinct responsibilities to engage our own position as we create art (Swain 2020). For each lab, we located the meetings of Nations, ancestral lineages, diverse and diasporic settler experiences and visual and somatic perspectives within the wider fabric of colonial antagonisms of the different locations in which we were working.
In Yawuru Country, where the brutal impact of the WA Aborigines Act (1905) carried out by the Western Australian government had previously separated Peoples from Country, language and ceremony, the group gathered together for the first time at Nyamba Buru Yawuru, the home of the Yawuru Native Title owners. Following Mabo vs Queensland (No.2), the case that proved the legal fiction of terra nullius and led to the recognition of Native Title in Australia, the Yawuru People launched their own case for Rubibi. It was finally won by Yawuru in 2006 after a twelve-year battle. To highlight “dramaturgies of contested land” in a Yawuru context, Yawuru Lore Boss Patrick Dodson took the group to a site near the ceremonial Lore grounds, showing where the judges of the High Court of Australia sat during the Native Title determinations and explained how they did not have the cultural authority to enter the sites in question. In our discussions leading to the first lab, Patrick emphasised how such approaches to dramaturgy engage with places and knowledge that can be known to some, but not others.
The second lab took place 4000 km away in the urban environment of central Sydney on the lands of the Gadigal clan in Redfern, a politically important site for Indigenous Australians. From colonisation onwards, Indigenous people from many Nations relocated to Redfern. During the 1970s, many important Indigenous activists, artists and organisations emerged and were based there. After the Gadigal welcome at Carriageworks, the multi-arts venue that hosted the activities, Aunty Donna Ingram, a Wiradjuri woman and “Redfern Elder,” took the group on a walking tour of her community. She shared local histories of resistance and survival for Indigenous Peoples living there who bore the brunt of the first wave of colonisation. Travelling to the coast, the group were welcomed by Aunty Joyce Timbery at Guriwal (La Perouse) on the lands of the Bidiagal clan on the northern side of Gamay (Botany Bay) and heard the history of the area from members of the Gujaga Foundation who recounted the arrival of Captain James Cook and the First Fleet at Gamay from oral histories of their People.
Locating the Process
Each research lab began with a Welcome to Country protocol conducted by senior cultural custodians. The role of a Welcome To Country is to do just that: make visitors to a place feel welcome and educated about how to behave within that Country to ensure they will be kept safe physically and spiritually. This is part of the responsibility as a custodian of Country: to ensure that Country is cared for and that visitors become guests who understand their role in respecting that. Different Nation-specific ceremonies are conducted to fulfill these responsibilities, and in sites of contested land and with the influence of colonisation, these ceremonies take different forms of delivery for different purposes. The ultimate goal is to help people develop some understanding of their responsibilities to acknowledge the place in which they are visiting, working or living, and how it has been managed and cared for over thousands of years by cultural custodians with deep connections to the songs, stories, plants, animals and spirits of that Country.
When a new group is hosted in the lands of the Yawuru people, it is Marrugeku’s responsibility to engage respectfully with the Yawuru community to ensure protocols to have meaningful exchanges with custodians are honoured. Today, there are processes to submit a request for a Welcome To Country, often accompanied by a smoking ceremony if it is an appropriate time to conduct one in Rubibi. This is processed through Nyamba Buru Yawuru, who take care of, and exist for, the traditional custodians and the acknowledgment of their Native Title rights. These processes ensure the appropriate people with cultural knowledge will be able to conduct the ceremony with consistency while carrying out their responsibility for hosting visitors.
On the first day of the Rubibi lab, everyone participating attended a Welcome to Country by Yawuru knowledge holder Dianne Appleby and Lore Boss Neil McKenzie around the fire pit in the shade of a birlawal tree (bloodwood gum). A mosaic on the ground depicts the six Yawuru seasons in a circular pattern. Created by Yawuru artists with pride, and painstakingly laid out, the artwork shows the deep connection with and understanding of time governed by the seasons that the Yawuru people live by. Before any “work” can take place in Yawuru Country, the Welcome To Country protocol takes place with the words shared in Yawuru and translated into English for visitors to make each person feel at home within the community and Country––especially those who have travelled from afar and fellow First Peoples. In the fire pit, the orange wood of the gunggara tree burns in preparation for the smoking ceremony to begin. The role of the smoking is to bring the smell of Country together with the smell of visitors and to cleanse softly the spirit of each person to ensure clear and straight intentions are felt so that the spirits and people of the land can “know you” and “smell you” and know that you mean well while visiting Yawuru country, so you can sleep well. Smoking also brings healing to sore parts of the body, or if feeling unwell in spirit or health, it can also offer a remedy. A mixing of the resin deep inside the bright orange gunggara wood as it burns has a distinct smell of our country. Placed on top of the flames are green leaves from garnburr (the saltwater paperbark) which also offers medicinal properties in the oils within. This combination creates a soft, clean smoke that cleanses, heals and feels like home. When conducted by senior cultural people, it has the power to chase away spirits, which is why it can’t be performed when approaching certain ceremonial times within our seasons, in case the wrong spirits are chased out.
On the first day of the first lab, each artist was invited to pass through the smoke, bathe in it, and hold it where it was needed for each individual. While this was happening, Dianne Appleby spoke of the importance of “liyan—spirit/feeling/intuition,” explaining that it is where we all start. She explained the lab as “janyba,” as succession planning, and its importance in terms of passing on knowledge. Her words were crystal clear and clean in spirit in expressing the purposes of the laboratory and the explorations about to take place. She summarised the order of priorities in our art-making: “You are here on country that’s the first thing. You are with us that’s the second thing. And then you dream that’s the third thing” (2022).
The genuine spirit in which the soft but powerful words that are offered as part of the Welcome to Country and the knowledge shared about Yawuru concepts and world view were then accented with a sharing of nurlu (song), about a creation story of a Saltwater Woman spirit sung by Lore Boss Neil McKenzie. For artists to hear the sound of Yawuru ngan-ga (language) in song was to hear the sound of Yawuru Country, with its rhythm and beat kept by the two lanyji (boomerangs) played as traditional instruments, and the story of the place in which artists were being welcomed, positioning them and locating them in Yawuru Country.
Later that day, the group relocated to Gabarragun, the highest point in the town site, above the police station and local prison, where you can see the sand dunes of the coast looking north to Cable Beach and a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree view of Yawuru responsibility of both land and sea. Looking out across Roebuck Bay, we heard about the unique history of Broome due to the pearling industry and the past policies that prevented and stalled cultural practices within the townsite. We also heard of the resilience, strength and generosity of the Yawuru sharing their country with neighbouring Aboriginal language groups who were brought to Broome for work, living far from their homelands. As custodians, Dianne and Neil shared the cultural importance of places across the road at Didirrgun, a giant sand dune deeply filled and covered with shell midden from the jirrinygirliny (cockles). They explained how, to the left of the dune, houses that were part of an Aboriginal reserve were recently demolished and declared unfit to live in, while to the right, the Mangrove Hotel, accommodates the thousands of tourists who flock to Broome in the peak season.
Taking in all that was generously shared with them throughout the day, the artists were then invited to take time in their teams to respond to Country—to smells, sights, sounds and spirit. They offered open-ended responses in whichever way they liked—in movement, music, spoken word, silence. These ways of being welcomed onto Country gift artists with material generated from this experience as part of their first engagements with the laboratory. They awaken abilities to Warrabara (Look/see), Waligarra (listen) Warranguba liyan ngarru (Feel/touch on), which set up the foundations for dramaturgical practice in Rubibi.
Dramaturgy as a Contested Site
I am my mob … and my mob is me…(Dobby, Lab in Gadigal Country, 2023)
The different locations brought distinct themes to reclaiming dramaturgy as a culturally accessible tool for making performance in relational engagement with Country. In Marrugeku’s home of Rubibi, where the company is deeply connected to the Yawuru community, this involved bringing attention to Yawuru specific ways of seeing, listening and feeling. This enabled cultural, aesthetic, political and social modes of sharing and witnessing performance encouraged by Yawuru inclusiveness, which has evolved in part due to the region’s multicultural and Indigenous-Asian histories. During the second and larger lab in the contested urban environment of Redfern on Gadigal land, the provocations of decolonising, Indigenising or rejecting dramaturgy itself emerged as a productively disputed site in group discussions. This endeavour to unsettle and dismantle previous frameworks for dramaturgy focused on practice-based solutions as artists charted directions in their own craft to “rediscover the unknown” and/or holdfast to familiar praxes. These productive disruptions were acts of self-determination in the so-often unrecognised setting of the formalised theatre contexts (Royal 2007).
To support this work, we spent time early in the second lab on Gadigal Country sharing some critical thought leadership regarding the possibilities/impossibilities for dismantling/Indigenising dramaturgy and its cultural reorientation. We began by acknowledging the important doctoral research of Lindsey Lachance (Algonquin, Anishinaabe), The embodied politics of relational Indigenous dramaturgies (UBC 2018). She works to include processes understood to be relational and inclusive of the people, places, ancestors, and other beings involved in dramaturgical work. Lachance outlines a three-part relational Indigenous model of land-based, placed-based and community-engaged dramaturgies. She links Indigenous dramaturgies to critical Indigenous theories of resurgence and self-recognition, following Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Michi Saagiig Anishinaabe) and Glen Coulthard (Yellowknives Dene).
We also acknowledged the work of musician and scholar Charles Ahukaramū Royal (Marutu āhu, Ngāti Raukawa and Ngā Puhi), which highlights the significance of the natural world to contemporary Māori performance. Royal’s influential doctoral dissertation, Te Whare Tapere: Towards a New Model for Māori Performance Art (1998),suggests that there are three drivers behind Indigenous knowledge internationally. They include better relationships with the natural world, and the weaving of knowledge leading to cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary collaborations and cultural revival (Royal 1998). We touched on the literary scholar Chadwick Allen (Chickasaw ancestry), who has shown how blood, land and memory are an inseparable triad (2002) in Native American Indian narratives.
Working with artists from diverse backgrounds to strengthen cultural frameworks for dramaturgy, we noted that Indonesian choreographers sometimes use the term “pengganggu” to describe a person who works closely with the artist or performance-maker in ways that are similar to the functions of a dramaturg. A direct translation of the word is “disturber” or “one who interferes.” The “pengganggu” is seen as productive, playful, creative and generative rather than negative. Singaporean Australian dramaturg How Ngean Lim explains the “pengganggu” is a thoughtful, mindful figure who interrupts projects and interjects with new perspectives and ideas (Lim 2017).
We acknowledged two key defining moments in European dramaturgy of relevance to our project. The collaboration between German choreographer Pina Bausch and dramaturg Raimund Hoghe from 1980 to 1990 was a catalyst for the role of the dance dramaturg in process-driven or task-based movement practices, especially those devised by asking questions of the dancers who co-create the work. Hoghe––who described himself as “not the usual body; you don’t see this kind of body often onstage. I have a hunchback. I’m not very tall” (Marranca 25)––was a significant influence on Bausch’s renowned dance theatre and could perhaps have informed her famous quote “I am not interested in how they move but in what moves them” (Schmidt 15–16). The important movement in European dance theatre, drawing on dancer’s own stories and physicalities to inform the dramaturgy of work, was propelled by this special collaboration.
Another critical European influence was that of Belgian dramaturg Marianne Van Kerkhoven, who first described “New Dramaturgy” in 1994 as it emerged from process-oriented methods of working which interrogate representation, question presence and perception, and radicalise constructions of space and time (Van Kerkhoven). During the second lab, we shared a well-known passage from Van Kerhoven which usefully summarises a key challenge facing the lab participants:
Dramaturgy is for me learning how to handle complexity. It is feeding the ongoing conversation of the work, it is taking care of the reflexive potential as well as of the poetic force of the creation. Dramaturgy is building bridges, it is being responsible for the whole, dramaturgy is above all a constant movement. Inside and outside. The readiness to dive into the work, and to withdraw from it again and again, inside, outside, trampling the leaves. A constant movement. Wenn ich still stehe, verstehe ich nichts. (“When I stand still, I don’t understand anything”. Van Kerkhoven 2009, 11, trans. R. Swain).
In collaborative practices, this “constant movement” and “handling of complexity” is carried by an array of knowledges and disciplines that are both intersecting and fractured by a small group of people who each are functioning, in part, as “the dramaturg.” This collective nurturing of dramaturgy brings challenges for artists who are both authors of the work and collaborators on the dramaturgy—summarised so beautifully by Van Kerkhoven above. It is the “constant movement” demanded from inside to outside, the capacity to dive in and create and shapeshift in order to stand outside and observe and better define meaning for witnesses. One aspect of the “handling of complexity” discussed during both labs was dramaturgical decision-making regarding access points to the work for divergent local/non-local, Indigenous, non-Indigenous and other audiences. Congruent with our approach outlined above, we encouraged participants to make their own choices about who their work was for, who they wanted their audience to be and on whose behalf they were attempting to “move inside and outside, trampling the leaves.” Taken together the conceptions of dramaturgy that were introduced, many of which align with or inform Marrugeku’s own practices, show the ways dance and cultural dramaturgies can work simultaneously through multiple layers of knowing that are inclusive of people, places, other species and Ancestors to engage in distinct ways with diverse audiences.
Te Wakahuia as Dramaturgical Self-reflection
Sounds of the Tarp Shellfish…That became the weary traveller across the Ocean to meet and go through ceremony… It is transitional…Reihana, 2023
To open the second lab on Gadigal land, we introduced Te Wakahuia as the notion of the dancing self as a taonga (treasure) of historical discourses. The Wakahuia can be understood amongst the tangata whenua of Aotearoa as a treasure box or vessel of great symbolic significance. As Tawini White writes:
A waka huia (treasure box) is an ornately carved treasure box within which our ancestors kept their most precious treasures. It was fitted with a lid and contained items of adornments, such as earrings, heru (comb) and huia (a type of native bird with black feathers now extinct) feathers for safe keeping (Reed 24). These items were passed down from generation to generation to enhance the mana (prestige) of those who wore them.White 4
As a process of identifying one’s own (performative) cultural treasures, Te Wakahuia was introduced to Marrugeku in 2009 by performance artist Charles Koreneho (Ngāpuhi). Since that time, with his permission, we have re-gifted this process as a means of introduction and self-identification in several laboratory research processes. The Wakahuia dramaturgy of Charles Koreneho draws on a Te Ao Māori philosophy that asks the artists to “lift the lid” (of their treasure box) as a means to share their lineage. In doing so, the processes of whanaungatanga are encouraged through culturally specific praxis.
In previous laboratory processes, we invited participants to individually share the “treasures” that they draw on when making their own work, as an artistic and cultural introduction to a new group. As an extension of this exercise, we suggest groups attempt a “dramaturgical wakahuia” for/of their group as a task designed to encourage self-reflection on ways they carry and share meaning as a collaborative team. This prompts artists to contemplate the treasures that inform the dramaturgical expression of the work they are creating together. The challenge was interpreted differently by each group depending on the modes of authorship at play. For some groups, the lead artist’s vision and experience defined the dramaturgical logic of the work, meaning it was their own “wakahuia as dramaturgy” that was shared. For others—where long-term collaborations contribute to the ways meaning is constructed in a body of work—they shared “treasures” in ways that collectively defined the whole. In groups where the lead artist had invited new collaborators to work with them on a new idea, the individuals in the group tended to present their own personal wakahuia, one by one, to acknowledge how they bring their cultural perspectives to the making of a new work.
In this, the second lab’s interpretation of Koroneho’s Te Wakahuia process, relationship building was made complex by each group’s culturally collective navigating of the intercultural circumstance within their group, while also presenting together to the wider group. This reinforced a central question posed by the curation of both labs that asks how we can tell our stories while in a receptive and reciprocal relationship with the mana (authority) of the place we are co-inhabiting. For the small working groups, the wakahuia might then transcend literal translation and be embedded in physical and metaphysical ways of knowing and being that are not completely known by any one artist but are collectively acknowledged and available.
The Wakahuia presentation by scholar and choreographer Mique’l Dangeli (Tsimshian Nation of Metlakatla, Alaska) expanded on ways the individual artist may situate themselves as part of a collective, enabling reciprocity to consider cultural treasures. During her presentation, Mique’l reflected that her artistic praxis involves her being able to “stand on the strength of our elders to do this work”, stating that, as such “we are never alone and we know, as my dad would say…we are not just surviving, we are thriving” (2023). Within these provocations of belonging, that is the backbone of the Wakahuia model that Dangeli shared, was an example of how deepened values of personal narrative can interface with the landscapes of critical reflection as a means of re-envisioning dramaturgy (Nakata 2007).
Dangeli’s genealogy of place and people informs personal narratives often fraught with challenges. Māori Scholar Wally Penetito (2009) discusses an ideology of belonging that acknowledges genealogy while promoting the importance of place as an essential element from which to engage with the practice of artists and educationalists. The “wakahuia as collaborative dramaturgy” task that was offered to the working groups was realised in part through a heightened awareness of the location of the process on Gadigal land. This focus on a series of relationships that were established and maintained through a sense of connection to place asked the participants: “Who are you? Where are we? Where are you from? What is this place?” Such provocations were felt as tangible tremors of potentiality suggesting ways to equitably discover new aesthetics of the moving bodies in the room as a reflection of relationships to human localities, location, community, and their histories.
Working Groups— Portals to our Own Worlds
The laboratories were structured by two distinct programs of activity. The first involved presentations and workshops led by cultural leaders and/or guest artists who shared case studies giving examples of navigating cultural concepts, values, and responsibilities realised in their own art forms. In Rubibi in 2022, we introduced working groups to members of the Yawuru community who hold knowledge and practices of articulating how they Warrabara (see/look at), Waligarra (listen/hear), Yangarranguba liyan ngarru (express what they feel) in relation to Country. Speakers included songman Stephen Pigram, Country Manager Dean Matthews, and Nyamba Buru Yawuru’s CEO Niniella Mills, who are involved daily in the work of exchanging and sharing janyba, their perspectives of these cultural concepts and the layers of meaning that come with them.
On Gadigal land at Carriageworks in 2023, Noongar novelist and poet Cassie Lynch spoke to us, among many things, about the dramaturgy of trapdoor spiders. We were also joined by Wiradjuri visual artist Jonathan Jones, who described a range of projects that showed alternative examples of Wiradjuri-specific, trans-Indigenous or intercultural approaches within his art practice. Jonathan shared his Wiradjuri manifesto, which he uses as a touchstone to remind him of the reasons he makes his work. During this larger lab in 2023, we invited guest workshop leaders to present their own practice sharings within the lab itself. This included Mique’l Dangeli (introduced above) and her son visual artist, singer, dancer and filmmaker Mike Dangeli (Nisga’a, Tlingit, Tsetsaut, and Tsimshian Nations). Mique’l shared her framework of “host-guest relationscapes” (Dangeli 2016) that was of inspiration for the curation of their lab. Together they shared their work leading the Git Hayetsk Dancers, a Northwest Coast First Nations dance group specializing in ancient and newly created songs and mask dances. During the final week, we were joined by choreographer Radouan Mriziga of the Amazigh Peoples of Morocco, who shared ways he reveals and conceals the visual and cultural languages of his people in the structures of his work.
These presentations and workshops were not intended as lessons in “how to do dance and cultural dramaturgy”. Rather, they shared distinct, culturally-situated artistic and experimental pathways from which the working groups could draw inspiration and resonated with, or diverged, from in their own choices.
The second program running through both labs was introduced by our co-curator, Hildegard de Vuyst, from methods she developed in earlier dramaturgy masterclasses. They involved inviting the working groups to arrive with a “scene,” “ceremony,” “event,” or “installation” (or all these things at the same time) that they would work on in response to set tasks. We suggested they choose performance material that communicates with audiences in ways that are significant for them. We asked them to prepare something they were happy to share publicly and “workshop amongst friends”. The aim was to not spend the first week of the lab making something new, but to bring something “ready-made” that exemplified their preferred approach to structuring and staging meaning in performance.
In this program, we offered tasks or provocations to engage the artists in defining their ambitions for their own dramaturgies and to strengthen their practices in implementing them. In both Broome and Sydney, this required securing a venue with multiple working spaces and a range of technical equipment, including sound systems, projectors, lighting, and technical support. The site visits with custodians, guest speakers and workshops with guest leaders were interspersed among these sessions throughout the two weeks.
During her presentation in Rubibi in 2022, Hildegard highlighted how dramaturgy involves ways in which time is dealt with in the duration of a live performance. “The approach to time is deeply intimate and culturally informed” (2022)––a point echoed again and again during both labs. Noongar novelist and poet Cassie Lynch noted in her guest speaking event that, “There are multiple time frames on Country” (2023). Talking to the group, Hildegard said,
It helps to become aware of how time works in a piece of live art and what tricks you can do with it. To ask how is this story going to end? To set up expectations. Thriller narratives start with the end to ask: how did we get there? A shift from dark to light generates meaning. Understand how you are bringing time structures into the work and be conscious of how it relates to your vision. Time is carried collectively, it needs to be talked through and understood by all collaborators.De Vuyst, 2022
In offering an exercise to work with time as a dramaturgical structure, we introduced a concept of colonial time manifesting as a seismic shockwave, as explained by Métis/Otipemisiw scholar of the Anthropocene, Zoe Todd. Todd notes that this colonial shockwave, “kept rolling like a Slinky” (a popular compressed helical spring toy) “to compact and speed up time, laying waste to legal orders, languages, place-story in quick succession” (2017, 771–72). Todd extends the metaphor of the Slinky to express the ‘arrival’ of the Anthropocene as: “really the arrival of the reverberations of that seismic shockwave into the nations who introduced colonial, capitalist processes across the globe in the first half-millennium in the first place” (2017, 774). We discussed how this could be understood as a dramaturgy of time that accumulates, reverberates (like a seismic shock wave) and changes direction, only to arrive again at its full gathering force. As an exercise we asked the working groups to apply the movement of a slinky as a time structuring device to their own scene in development and to look at ways it could ‘accumulate’ and gather force itself. With all such tasks, the working groups presented showings of their response and received feedback from other participants in the lab.
During the lab in Gadigal Country, Sydney, the young collaborative team of multidisciplinary artists /choreographers Jada Narkle, Saskia Ellis and Jenny Trinh explained that their work is informed by a desire to “rebuff the binding of the binaries and frameworks that can reinforce problematic stereotypes in art discourses” (Narkle et al., 2023). Jada expressed that it can be “beautiful to make our own portals and our own worlds” (ibid), worlds where, as Saskia says, they do not need to view their own and other’s identities “as linear” (ibid). Their first offering to the group was a collage made of objects, books, quotes and crocheted body parts held together in a fragile curation. As people gathered to view the work, Jada spoke to the ways they hoped to highlight the curation of softness. Perhaps a softness that composer/performance artist Jenny mentioned as spaces that have been “created or curated with a sense of vulnerability” (ibid).
For Jada, Saskia and Jenny, as young and emerging artists, being a part of the wider group and hearing the different conversations and moods of other’s processes provided doorways through which to reflect on their own distinct positions.
The working group led by Victoria Hunt and including Boris Bagattini, Moe Clark and Rosie Te Rauawhea Belvie, navigated an interface of the natural environment, cosmological and genealogical knowledge specific to their own cultural insights, protocols, learnings, and praxis. As individual members, they created moments that wove a karanga (Māori spiritual and ceremonial call) with Métis (Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island/Canada) song and percussion. During their whakahuia presentation at the Gadigal Laboratory on July 4, 2023, against a backdrop of a darkened room and projection, Boris spoke of their collaborative stimulus “to make the unseen seen by keeping it hidden” (Bagattini 2023) and revealing the moving yet unknown performing body in inconclusive pathways captured only in brief moments of lighting. In the same presentation, Moe spoke to the sovereignty of the performance narrative where “the river has the right to flow” and “Mother Earth is not a commodity” (Clark 2023). This was also expressed through the pūrākau (storytelling housed within a Te Ao Māori world view) of Victoria’s own personal journey in the repatriation of her whare tūpuna (meeting house of the ancestors). It was generously shared by Victoria as a tangible personification of whakapapa (genealogies) that extend into curational landscapes of a darkened room, and as temporal sovereignty of trans-kinships within the group.
Another example of the re-envisioning of dramaturgical choices to frame and shape culturally-informed performance could be seen in the collaborative practice of Javanese Australian artists, dancer and choreographer JadeDewi Tyas Tunggal and composer, musician and visual artist Ria Soemardjo as they made a collage informed by what Ria called the “the dhalang as dramaturg” (2023). During their wakahuia presentations, they performed with a Javanese puppet–Gunungan (cosmic mountain) also known as Kayonan (tree of life)– on loan from the local Javanese community in Gadigal Country. Ria spoke about drawing on the role of the dhalang (the puppet master and narrator of epic Javanese shadow puppet durational performances) as “storyteller, shaman, musical director, dramaturg and stand-up comedian” (Soemardjo 2023) in the shaping of their performance. Together, they rehearsed and showed ways to deliver voice, song, prose and physical pathways in what Jade identified as “Our Father’s Mother tongue” (2023). Their work moves in an interplay of ritual, confession, soundscape, visual narrative and physical score to reconcile creativity as ceremony. As Jade shared, “Here in Australia, we have to improvise our rituals…. And sometimes pretend we can speak Javanese.” Their language is heard in their introductions of new curational artefacts that include Oceania as woven wool shells and ceremonial canvas tarps that, as Jade suggests, help to frame “cultural dramaturgies and the medicine wheel/ dharmcharkra” of the work (2023).
Other groups during the lab on Gadigal Country also occupied contestable and creative landscapes by re-navigating and reflecting on socially cohesive arts praxis. The performance art practice of Filipino Australian artist Justin Shoulder with his collaborators, composer Corin Ileto and costume designer Matthew Stegh, together stage a reclamation “of the spectacle as a vehicle for awe and a bridge to the natural world” (Shoulder 2023). During their wakahuia presentation, they explained this means to unsettle what Matthew described as “the white heteronormative gaze that sees us as a dystopia” into “spaces of utopia” (2023).
Wakka Wakka Kombumerri choreographer Katina Olsen, with her collaborators Courtney Scheu, Rika Hamaguchi, and Tara Robertson expressed an aim to “oppose the cliché of the trained modern contemporary dancer with distinct kinaesthetic capabilities” (Olsen 2023). During their choreography-in-progress showing, collaborators Luke Currie-Richardson, Rhyan Clapham (aka Dobby) and Ghenoa Gela acknowledged a relational discourse within the making process. The connection lived out in the group’s approach offered a way to contend with what Rhyan described as “before 1788 and what came after” (Gadigal laboratory July 6, 2023); and that “what came after is just about working it out”.
During the smaller lab in Rubibi in 2022 we were able to extend the model of the working groups into new collaborations between the groups. This involved combining two of the groups and inviting one of the choreographers or directors of a third group to re-compose the performance elements in new constellations. This required the new lead choreographer and/or director to pay attention to considerations of cultural authority the performance material contained and to work quickly in collaboration with the composers, video artists, performers and visual artists who were members of the original groups.
Such an approach, introducing surprising new configurations of intercultural and trans-Indigenous collaborations, was embraced by the working groups and offered some of the most striking scenes developed during both labs. This application of Marrugeku’s long-held approach of combining intensive exploration of personal and culturally informed performance with random or left-of-field investigations, helps construct unexpected new compositions that “work” in multiple ways for audiences. Following the presentation of these larger scenes, we facilitated feedback sessions responding to each project. The groups were encouraged to choose the two or three points of feedback that they found the most useful or interesting and apply it to rework the scene a second time before presenting the final result, thereby demonstrating the evolution of the dramaturgy. In retrospect, the openness and trust needed to extend the collaborations in this experimental way was enabled by the strength of the Yawuru hosting of the work in Rubibi, which held and supported the process.
The daughters speaking to their fathers’ stories…
the fathers who speak in their Mothers’ tongues…
One of the ambitions of the research laboratories was to workshop a range of new, culturally informed, alternative approaches for giving feedback in response to the performance work that was shared. This was to strengthen the dramaturgical skills of artists working within collaborative teams. As with all elements of the research process, the approaches were offered as examples that could be adapted and repositioned in the artists’ own context.
After the introductions to Yawuru Country on the first days of the lab held in Rubibi, and the sharing of knowledge through the Welcome to Country and Smoking ceremony conducted by Dianne Appley and Neil McKenzie, the artists were introduced to seeing, listening and feeling Country from a Yawuru perspective by our guest speakers as described above. Drawing on this, we developed a framework for giving feedback that connected to Yawuru concepts of “Ngaligarran – I hear…, Nganambaran – I see…, Ngangaran liyan ngarru – I feel.” Participants practised taking into consideration what was shared with them in direct transmission by the speakers. They experimented with applying these concepts as a multi-layered way of responding to the emergent art practices performed during the lab. These sessions gave participants examples of how to express a cultural framework as a feedback model, which in turn challenged them to acknowledge their own position and cultural perspectives, practice-based knowledge and artistic preferences, to which they commit before giving feedback.
Taking a related but more playful angle, a second step involved identifying what one ‘needs’ as a spectator or witness coming from a particular position or standpoint. To do this, we shared an element of a feedback model developed by the experimental arts education program DAS Theatre in Amsterdam (2014). In this model, the person giving feedback takes and names an imagined or a real position and states what they “need” to see more of in the work when coming from this point of view. This position can be as random, fanciful or “real” as the speaker desires. For example, as a five-year-old at a birthday party, I need to know when the cake is coming; as a daughter of the diaspora, I need to hear the sound of the unsettled wind; as a choreographer, I need to feel the rhythm; as the Wicked Witch of the West, I need to know what the Wizard is doing; as a Yawuru guest on someone else’s Country, I need to feel my presence is welcomed; as the liver I need to feel the spleen and the kidneys are working with me. The aim is to give a concrete perspective or framework to help define choices in shaping the work. The participants experimented with this as an additional layer when giving responses to the showings of the projects.
The different approaches identify a standpoint offering transparency and respect towards someone else’s art-making, which in turn makes the intentions of the feedback clearer. This can include the intention to disrupt an idea, to challenge, to reinforce, to offer a different viewpoint or to critique with a certain purpose.
These sessions were offered as tools to strengthen the practices of looking, feeling and responding to each other’s work in ways that could capture cultural, disciplinary, community or other modes of perception. They supported the key focus of the labs: bringing each group’s attention back to their own practices. The feedback, and discussions that followed the showings, provided an opportunity to reflect, re-consider and/or un-resolve the dramaturgical strategies that may have settled in the work. In the sessions, the onus wasn’t placed on a polished output. Instead, choreographers and co-creators were encouraged to offer a site of engagement in which to rigorously attend to the potential “curational unknown”. What might have been a fixed vision could be loosened by prevocational challenges where others could feed forward from their own probing juxtapositions. That this could occur on contested lands with important cultural frameworks that foster safety, was imperative, especially when groups are dealing with narratives of generational socio-political and historical trauma.
(Not a) Conclusion: Fragile Strength— Dramaturgies of Incompleteness
Yawuru custodian Dianne Appleby’s summary of the order of priorities in our art making shared above: “You are here on Country that’s the first thing. You are with us that’s the second thing. And then you dream that’s the third thing” (2022) were reflected and activated throughout the two labs in activities described in this article. Every aspect of the programs was devised to offer artists diverse approaches to access, further define and articulate their own conceptual, cultural and personal themes to gain greater understanding on why these were significant to their praxis. This included tasks that encouraged them to reflect on their own position in relation to the contested land on which their work was created to inform, disrupt, or re-conceptualise that work. Supporting the participants’ awareness of working conceptually and culturally with ways of seeing, listening, and feeling dance in relation to contested land, is a step towards culturally appropriate models for feedback. This encourages artists to identify strategies to highlight what they choose to make visible or to conceal for local and non-local audiences.
Our invitation to practitioners whose long-term investigations are also defining this field, fostered valuable potentialities for artists who are grappling with their own challenges inherent to working in colonial aftermaths. The work of our co-collaborators and their distinct contributions and creative processes revealed methodologies that were at times reciprocal, at times divergent in their cultural, conceptual, corporeal, and visual performance modalities. Trans-disciplinary by nature, these laboratories provided significant and often unresolved understandings of how Indigenous knowledges, values and responsibilities can be made visible and corporeal, and how intercultural exchange in this space can encourage deviating dramaturgies and choreographic aesthetics in contemporary dance. In this way, each working group’s distinct narratives, born of their personal and professional concerns, interacted with the themes and experiences of the lab and with the specific cultural protocols that travelled with each person.
Each lab evolved as its own unique deep dive into the multiple perspectives from which to view the potentials and complexities of dance and cultural dramaturgy in contested land. As curators we were required to respond to the ambitions and the work of the groups as this unfolded between the hosts and the guests in each location. The use of time in the programs of activity each day and each week was constantly adjusted in a responsive and ongoing dialogue with the working groups as we practiced the dramaturgy of our curation within the structure of the lab itself. This takes flexibility, and committing time to regularly revisiting our aims as curators and to listening—not just to each other, but, at the same time, to practicing deep listening to those around us and to Country and its custodians. It requires not being afraid to change course if the road gets bumpy or culturally unsafe for participants, but also to continue offering a platform for dialogue around the overarching focus of the lab in order to hear each other clearly and process together what such evolving discussions might mean for the art we make.
The range of perspectives and stories explored in the working groups were summarised in a two-day symposium at the culmination of the two labs with the aim of raising their questions for the wider performance community. During her keynote presentation on the first day, Mique’l noted that research into the dismantling and reframing dramaturgy “starts with Indigenous research, ongoing accountability and informed consent” (Dangeli 2023). On the second day, Radouan began his keynote by saying, “I really appreciate the power of the fragility of this space [of this lab]” (Mriziga 23). He discussed ways his work starts by asking, “How can I use my body, the space and performance to tune the hierarchies of knowledge?”. In describing his practice as “part archive, part dreamed up” he suggests that there are times when, for artists, things are “fragile enough to break” (ibid).
Across the entire project these incomplete dramaturgies, as practices of fragility, engaging different audiences in different ways, become sites of potential for new and old dramaturgies to reconfigure hierarchies of knowledge in a globally significant way. The results will be seen in new works to come from the participating artists as they choose to embrace, reject or diverge from the approaches that were shared across and between the custodians, the working groups, the guest speakers, workshop leaders, the four curators and the three of us as facilitators. As an extension we have shared the model of our research as janyba, (transmission, sharing and care, after Dianne Appleby) so that this might contribute to other sites of dramaturgical investigation in contested land.
 https://www.marrugeku.com.au/research/dance-dramaturgies-in-contested-land/. During the project we were welcomed on Bidiagal Country by the Gujaga Foundation at La Perouse. We have adopted their orthography for “Bidiagal” in this article but acknowledge it is also written Bidjigal elsewhere along with other variations.
 Due to Redfern’s histories Marrugeku follows the community’s conventions by acknowledging the distinct roles and responsibilities of “Redfern Elders” as community leaders as well as the Gadigal Elders as Traditional Custodians. We also understand that custodianship can be contested and sought opportunities to hear from a range of Elders and artists from the Redfern community during the lab on Gadigal Country.
 Lead multidisciplinary artist /choreographer Jada Narkle (Noongar yorga from the Wiilman and Yued tribes) with invited collaborators Saskia Ellis (queer, neurodivergent, settler multidisciplinary artist /choreographer) and Jenny Trinh (Vietnamese-settler Australian composer).
 Lead artist Victoria Hunt (Ngati Ohomairangi-Te Arawa, Rongowhaakata, Kahungunu Māori as well as Pakeha-Irish, English, Finnish lineages) with invited collaborators: video artist and lighting designer Boris Bagattini (settler-Australian), Moe Clark (âpihtawikosisâniskwêw (Métis / Norwegian / French / British) multidisciplinary artist and a 2Spiritsinging thunderbird) and Rosie Te Rauawhea Belvie ((Te Arawa, Ngāti Rangitihi, Te Whakatōhea Independent artist of avant-garde theatre and Māori cultural performing arts).
 Jade Dewi Tyas Tunggal (dancer and choreographer of Australian convict/settler and Javanese royal/Siva-Buddhist ancestry) and Ria Soemardjo (Javanese-Australian musician and visual artist) joined the 2023 lab as their own collaborative working group. In 2022 they were joined by actor, dancer, director and dramaturg Kirk Page (a proud Mulanjali man born in QLD with lineage connected to the Torres Strait Islands and with German and Polish heritage) in the first lab in Broome with their collaboration Smoke.
 Lead artist Justin Shoulder (Filipino-Australian performance and visual artist), invited his long-term collaborators Matthew Stegh (Wiradjiri/Croatian/Anglo settler Australian costume designer) and Bhenji Ra (Filipinx performance artist) to the 2022 lab and invited Corin Ileto (Filipina-Australian electronic producer, composer and performer) to join the 2023 lab.
 Lead artist Katina Olsen (Wakka Wakka Kombumerri choreographer) invited dancers Courtney Scheu (settler Australian) and Shana O’Brian (First nations Dancer) to the 2022 lab and Tara Robertson (a Mingunberri woman with Irish and Scottish ancestry) and Rika Hamaguchi (Yawuru, Bardi, Bunuba and Jaru people of the Kimberley Region and Asian and European ancestry) who joined for the 2023 lab.
 Lead artist Luke Currie-Richardson (a descendant of the Kuku Yalanji and Djabugay peoples, the Mununjali Clan of South East QLD, the Butchulla clan of Fraser Island and the Meriam people of the Eastern Torres Straits Islands) invited collaborators Ghenoa Gela (Tribe to the West and Samsep Clan, Peidu Clan and a descendant of the Rebes Tribe to the East, (Torres Strait Islands) multidisciplinary, multidimensional storyteller) and rapper and composer Dobby (Proudly identifying as a Filipino and Aboriginal musician, Dobby’s roots run deep in the Murrawarri and Ngemba lands of Weilmoringle and Brewarrina, NSW).
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*Dalisa Pigram—Concept, co-research facilitator, co-writer and cultural editor. Dalisa Pigram is a Yawuru/Bardi woman born and raised in Broome, in the north of Western Australia. Co-artistic director of Marrugeku, together with Rachael Swain, Dalisa is a dancer and choreographer and has been a co-devising artist on all productions. Dalisa is committed to the maintenance of Indigenous language and culture through arts and education, working with and for her community.
**Dr Tia Reihana—Kairangahau (researcher) and co-writer. Tia (Ngāti Hine) is a Senior Lecturer in Dance Studies at Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland. Dr Reihana works extensively in Arts, Education and Health with Indigenous communities in Aotearoa and the wider Pacific. She is the co-director of the Centre for Co-Created Ageing Research (CREATE-AGE).
***Dr Rachael Swain —Concept, co-research facilitator and co-writer. Rachael is an Anglo-Pākehā director and dramaturg of intercultural and trans-disciplinary performance and an artist-researcher. Born in Aotearoa/New Zealand, she works between Gadigal Land, Sydney and Yawuru Buru, Broome. She has co-conceived, directed or been dramaturg on all Marrugeku productions. Rachael is the author of Dance in Contested Land—new intercultural dramaturgies (Palgrave 2020).
Copyright © 2023 Dalisa Pigram, Tia Reihana, and Rachael Swain
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