“Jurrungu Ngan-ga / Straight Talk”, Marrugeku ©Abby Murray

Don’t Blink

Marrugeku’s “Jurrungu Ngan-ga / Straight Talk” played at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele from 5 – 7 August 2022 as part of Tanz im August. Choreographed by Dalisa Pigram with direction and dramaturgy by Rachael Swain, it staged a ‘prison of the mind’ that was a call not to pity people suffering far away, but rather to wake up to the deadly incoherencies we live with here and now.

A decade ago, when I first moved to New York City, I used to have episodes that I can only describe as suddenly feeling as though I was in an amusement park. They happened most often when I was on my bicycle. My smooth easy movements across the asphalt would begin to feel disturbing. Instead of seeing individual buildings and streets around me, I saw a concrete crust that covered and contained. I remembered that under the crust there was dirt, and water, organic matter, and felled forests, and I’d realise how much my day-to-day urban life depended on me forgetting about that fact. I didn’t understand these episodes, where they came from, or how to explain them to anyone else, but while they were happening, I felt fear — not of what was under the concrete, but of the concrete itself. Looking back, I now understand the source of the discomfort. I was sensing the rewriting of the landscape around me. Sensing how I was desired and required to move across it. Sensing that I was living in someone else’s fantasy.

Over the course of the performance, the chandeliers in Marrugeku’s “Jurrungu Ngan-ga / Straight Talk” (the show is designed by West Australian visual artist Abdul-Rahman Abdullah) reminded me with increasing insistence of those first episodes of environmental estrangement among the concrete. Breaking with the abstract, gray, industrial visual language of the hollow structure that dominated the stage from beginning to end and which served variously as a prison, a border wall, and a surveillance device, the chandeliers descended from a high and hidden place, sometimes positioned in a grid, and at other times in a zigzag. At first, they struck me as delicate and pretty, but their presence soon became unnerving, and sometimes even violent. They were disruptive, regulating the movements of the performers along specific linear paths, or, at times, descended low enough that they restructured and restricted possible sites of movement.

In a solo scene among the chandeliers, performer Bhenji Ra delivered a monologue that embodied the cognitive dissonance of white Australia in words and phrases that spun out from daytime television platitudes into meaninglessness — “I love Chinese dishes! Some of my best friends are Chinese dishes!” — coupled with a physical vocabulary that flashed between human and animal, between the precise movements of a classically disciplined dance body and an exaggerated sexuality. The incoherence was for me exactly the point. In navigating this debris of stereotype, do-gooderism, nightmares, guilt, and trauma among the creepy chandeliers, Ra was, to my eyes, performing the same kind of spit take I felt like I was doing all those years ago sensing the dirt under the asphalt. It’s like you start to see the world around you glitching. Try forgetting, afterwards, that you saw another reality. Try convincing yourself again that the concrete is the only layer.

Marrugeku is a dance company in which Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians work together to preserve and develop Indigenous cultural knowledge and story. With “Jurrungu Ngan-ga,” they celebrated their German premiere. The performance, notes the programme, is set within ‘the prison of the mind of Australia.’ That felt potent to me from my viewpoint outside of its social, political, and geographic context. The material was researched and developed by the ensemble of performer-devisers, among them Indigenous, Trans, settler, refugee, formerly incarcerated, cis, and other identities and backgrounds. On the one hand, it is very Australian  — very much about (in the company’s own words) ‘Australia’s brutal carceral-border regime’ as ‘a colonial system of intertwining systems of oppression that combine the prison-industrial complex and the border-industrial complex.’ On the other, the prison of the mind it portrays is unsettlingly familiar beyond this specific local context. The (post)colonial psyche is mobile across oceans and nations and identities. As a Penobscot friend pointed out to me once, we’re all living in a reality derived from some colonisers’ imaginations generations ago.

In the final scene, the chandeliers descended further and further, extremely slowly, as though they were drooping or melting, one by one touching down onto the ground and lying there like the debris of a collapsing façade. They were still lit. Feras Shaheen writhed among them while the rest of the ensemble watched from within the mesh prison/wall. By staging an internal prison and strategies that can be used in the struggle for sovereignty of the mind, “Jurrungu Ngan-ga” refuses pity from an audience of outsiders. Wherever the show goes, it seems to me, it plays as if to an audience of comrades. I didn’t see a pathetic figure in Shaheen’s pain, I saw a warning about the danger of the chandeliers, a call to break free from them or be crushed. This warning was directed at me, at all of us. The ‘straight talk’ of the title, after all, refers in the language and culture of the Yawuru People to a no-frills honesty only possible among kin. For these reasons, it felt crucial to me that “Jurrungu Ngan-ga” moves beyond portraying the prison of the mind to also investigate strategies for resisting it, and that these brought joy, fire, and humour to an evening that was unafraid of heaviness and grief.

What to do after you see the glitch? Don’t deny it. Work with it. Make new, living culture with it. Refuse gender by performing it, remix dabke and hip-hop, become a traitor to your settler ancestors. Perform the glitch. Until no one can deny it’s there anymore.

“Jurrungu Ngan-ga / Straight Talk” by company Marrugeku, choreographed by Dalisa Pigram with direction and dramaturgy by Rachael Swain, was shown at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele from 5 – 7 August 2022 as part of Tanz im August.

Tanz im August – 34th International Festival Berlin is still running until 27 August 2022, find the full programme at tanzimaugust.de.