The spirit of dance in a celebrational book

Cut The Sky by Marrugeku, February 2015, Perth. Image: Jon Green/supplied.

Marrugeku is an internationally renowned, multi-disciplinary dance company that just turned 25. Co-artistic director Rachael Swain spoke with the Sentinel about the new book that honours that milestone. 

Rachael Swain is one of the founding members of Marrugeku. She directed the very first performance, Mimi, from which the company dates its inception, and has directed and/or been dramaturg for most of its shows since. 

Mimi was the brainchild of Gamilaroi choreographer Michael Leslie and is based on Mimih, a spirit of the Kunwinjku people of West Arnhem Land who is believed to visit artists and inspire song, dance and art. Leslie created the work through a collaboration among the custodians of the story from the Kunwinjku community, a troupe of contemporary Indigenous dancers and performers from Stalker Theatre which incorporated acrobatics, stilts and aerial work.

Swain was a member of Stalker Theatre at the time. 

Rachael Swain, co-artistic director of Marrugeku. Image: Michael Jalaru Torres.
Dalisa Pigram, co-artistic director of Marrugeku. Image: Michael Jalaru Torres.

Mimi premiered in 1996 at Perth Festival, then toured throughout Arnhem Land. The collaboration behind the production morphed into Marrugeku and the idea of fusing cultural and disciplinary elements has remained an integral part of its creative practice ever since. 

“The artists themselves, who come from many Indigenous nations and many cultural backgrounds, work from the starting point of their own position within that process, so we describe our work as both intercultural and Trans-Indigenous,” explains Swain.

“The Trans-Indigenous title is referring to the fact that Indigenous artists from many nations are participating in a process where they are working from an acknowledgement of their own Indigenous background, which means they’re not working towards a kind of generic Indigenous dance language but one that acknowledges their own movements, their own cultures, their own languages, their own songs, their own histories in their communities. And they work from this place to create the dance works that we facilitate.”

‘Marrugeku’ is a Kunwinjku word given to Leslie by artist Jacob Nayinggul. It means ‘clever man’.

“A clever man is someone who can see and speak to the spirit world,” says Swain. It’s a very significant and auspicious name. 

The company’s 25th anniversary celebrations have been disrupted or postponed by the pandemic. However, the commemorative book, Marrugeku: Telling That Story, not only still got made but probably benefitted from Covid-19. 

“It’s a massive book. It’s 1.2 kg of book and I think that’s partially because we finished it in last year’s lockdown, so we just kept going and going,” laughs Swain. “It’s by far the biggest book in this book series – probably double most of the other books.”

Cover of Marrugeku: Telling That Story, published by Performance Research Books. Image: supplied.

The series Swain refers to is a collection created by publishers Performance Research Books called Inside Performance Practice.

“It takes iconic companies from around the world and works in a very collaborative way between the publisher, the artists and the editors,” says Swain. 

Swain and Marrugeku co-director, Dalisa Pigram, worked closely with the publisher’s editor, Professor Helen Gilbert, to ensure that everyone who contributed to the book had a very real, visceral connection with the company.

The result is a scholarly tome but also a collection of personal memories, or, as the book launch moderator describes it, “A family photo album.”

It includes reflections from community members, artists, choreographers, reviewers, curators and founding company members. 

Though considered an academic publication, the book has a beautiful aesthetic with more than 140 images (rare for an academic work) and an impressive design. 

The book is being launched online on Wednesday, 29 September, with participants from around the country and the world. 

“It’s exciting to have people participating in the launch from different places, different locations around the world and around Australia,” says Swain.

“We have one of our original dancers – Gideon Djorlum from West Arnhem Land – and the grandson of Thompson Yulidjirri, the founding cultural custodian of the work, is speaking. We have Professor Helen Gilbert speaking from the Netherlands. Yawuru leader, Patrick Dodson is launching the book from Broome in a very beautiful ceremony.”

Swain and Pigram will be joined by performance artist, Latai Taumoepeau. The live-streamed launch event will also include a five-minute retrospective reel of snapshots from Marrugeku’s 25 years. 

The live-streamed launch of Marregeku: Telling That Story takes place at 8pm Wednesday, 29 September (AEST). It’s free to attend; register on Evenbrite to take part.

Marregeku: Telling That Story is available from Gleebooks (Australia) the Centre for Performance Research (UK).

For further details, visit www.marrugeku.com.au.

Rita Bratovich is the arts and entertainment editor of the Sydney Sentinel.