Above – Baleen Moondjan. Photo – Roy VanDerVegt. Cover – Guuranda. Photo – Tim Standing.

In the aftermath of the Voice debacle, it is more than ever significant that this year’s Adelaide Festival has begun with two contemporary Indigenous ceremonies, both commissioned by the Festival itself, Baleen Moondjan and Guuranda. Both pieces are constructed from stories handed down by some of the oldest elders of their respective traditions, stories which might well have been entirely lost had these pieces not been composed. Baleen Moondjan is a vast ritualistic piece by one of our greatest Indigenous creators, Stephen Page, while Guuranda is an almost intimate theatre piece put together essentially by the community of the Narungga people of Guuranda (Yorke Peninsula), yet both have a vastness, a depth about them; a vastness of culture, of history, of story, embodied in ceremony, that communicates itself even to the members of the audience most ignorant about Indigenous culture, among which I count myself.

Baleen Moondjan is Stephen Page’s first commission since leaving Bangarra Dance Theatre, with which he has worked for decades. Importantly, the Adelaide Festival, of which Page is a former Artistic Director, chose this work to open the Festival itself. Based on a story from Minjerribah (Stradbroke island) which Page had from his grandmother, it tells of the relationship between the baleen whale, the totem of the Moondjan people of that place, and the spirits of those people. Set on the great space of Glenelg beach, it took place under a huge set designed by Jacob Nash, composed entirely of giant whale bones stretching up to the sky and out to the sea. As the sun set, and the light from fires and strobes took over, the story was played out with dance, violent and economical tableaux, and songs, mostly in English but partly in language, constructed from fragments transmitted to Page by Moondjan elders. All was woven together with technical mastery and the theatrical skill which is a hallmark of Page’s work.

To see this from perhaps a hundred metres, sitting or standing on the sand, was not to be immersed in this work, but rather to be a privileged witness to an extraordinary ceremony. I understood only a fraction of it, but the experience left me with a sense of profound respect, of awe, at the mastery of the theatrical medium which enabled it to be used to transmit this timeless story. I had something of the sense I have in the first act of Parsifal, as a non-Catholic witnessing the Grail scene from a bygone era.

Guuranda is a work of immense significance. Also commissioned by the Festival, it is nothing less than the beginning of a re-establishment of a ceremonial tradition which was on the brink of extinction. The Yorke Peninsula is very close to Adelaide – on a clear day you can see it from Glenelg – and its cultural memory has been kept alive by a handful of Narungga elders, including Auntie Ninni, who provided the mythic material for this show.

Jacob Boehme, the director of the show, a Narungga/Kaurna man himself, has been working on the creation stories from First Nations people for many years, using a choreographic methodology Phillipe Genty and Mary Underwood’s “Mem-o-gram” technique. Boehme writes: “Memory in Movement draws on the personal memories of the dancer to build choreographic phrases from their own relationships with Country, unlocking intergenerational memory held deep within our DNA.”

The voices of the Elders frame the show, which is in three sections, corresponding to three creation stories. In the first a group of Narungga dancers derive their movements from their body memory of ceremony past. It was truly compelling to see them rebirth their culture in this way. I had the impression, not of a re-enactment, but of a re-creation, yes, just like a re-birth; bringing something new into our consciousness that was also ancestrally old.

Genty and Underwood are also puppeteers, and Boehme worked with puppet designer Philip Miller in the second and third sections of Guuranda, which made use of human-sized puppets of animals and shadow puppets respectively. The puppet dingoes exuded the spirit of innocence, but the shadow puppets, displayed on five screens, depicted violent scenes from the creation stories of the Narungga people, alarming in their intensity.

The stories were sung by songwoman Sonya Rankine and songman Warren Milera, larger-than-life images of whom were projected on either side of the stage. The program promised surtitles for their songs, but there were no surtitles, and so the meanings of their epigrammatic texts were lost on me. I missed this all the more because the plangency and committedness of their singing spoke of profoundly important meaning behind their singing.

The three sections of the show all had a lightness of touch which seemed to me to be spoilt by the heaviness of the musical backing, which was more or less uninterrupted throughout the show. Much of this was synthesised, and played at a dynamic close to the threshold of pain. I speculated that Boehme had commissioned this artificial, non-human-generated music from James Henry because its synthesised origin could speak from a world beyond the human, that is to say, the world of the spirit. To me it had the reverse effect, as I find, like the Emperor in The Nightingale, that mechanically produced music has no soul.

The Adelaide Festival, in the persons of Artistic Director Ruth Mackenzie and CEO Kath Mainland, are to be sincerely thanked for generating these two profound First Nation shows, and having them so prominently at the opening of the Festival. This is ancient country ... I, not even born here, have so much to learn and experience.

Event details

Adelaide Festival 2024
Baleen Moondjan
by Stephen Page and Alana Valentine

Director Stephen Page

Venue: Glenelg (Pathawilyangga) Beach | Kaurna Country
Dates: 28 Feb – 2 March 2024
Tickets: $49 – $25
Bookings: www.adelaidefestival.com.au


Adelaide Festival 2024
by Jacob Boehme

Artistic Director & Choreographer Jacob Boehme

Venue: Her Majesty's Theatre | Grote Street, Kaurna Country, Adelaide
Dates: 29 Feb – 3 March 2024
Tickets: $47 – $59
Bookings: www.adelaidefestival.com.au


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