June 7, 2022


Bodily resistance: ‘Jurrungu Ngan-ga’

By Steve Dow
Image of dancers performing in ‘Jurrungu Ngan-ga’. Image credit: Prudence Upton

Image credit: Prudence Upton

The new dance theatre work by Marrugeku interrogates Australia’s history as a nation of jailers

Beneath a series of chandeliers descending from the ceiling, eight performers evenly spaced from one another turn on heel in tightly choreographed formation. Surveillance cameras have been intermittently projecting the dancers’ moves onto a huge grey metal wall behind them. But one of their number is missing.

The wall suddenly lights up from behind, revealing the ninth dancer at the back of the stage, bound to a chair. We see this dancer’s head bound in a spit hood, the use of such hoods having been infamously documented in Darwin’s Don Dale Youth Detention Centre. The restraining measure is still being used by Northern Territory police on children today.

Broome- and Sydney-based intercultural arts company Marrugeku’s new dance work Jurrungu Ngan-ga, from a Yawuru phrase that means “straight talk”, comes six years after ABC TV’s Four Corners aired its program “Australia’s Shame”, exposing the issue of Indigenous children in detention. It is an incredibly important and thoroughly engaging piece of dance theatre for contemporary Australia, elegantly skewering this country’s inhumanity and fear of difference.

This new dance work, which I first saw at Sydney’s Carriageworks earlier in 2022 and saw again during its extended season as part of Melbourne’s Rising festival, interrogates how we continue to treat Indigenous, refugee and trans bodies – the dehumanisation, the othering. We the audience are reminded of our complicity as Australian constituents in the prison-industrial machine.

The spit hood is shorthand for a system that also locks up 10-year-olds and places children as young as 13 in solitary confinement. Between the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the end of last year, there were 500 Indigenous deaths in custody. West Australian senator Pat Dodson, a Yawuru law man and Marrugeku patron, says this country is a “nation of jailers” dating to colonial times, “part of the system to assert the sovereign position of the Crown and a way to subjugate the people to the imperatives of the colonisers, basically,” he told me recently.

We are also invited to question how we as voters sanction the indefinite placement of refugees on prison islands, then forget the human faces, as “offshore processing” continues to be a moral stain on Australia. While Manus Island closed as a detention centre in 2017, Australia continues to use Nauru for refugees. Jurrungu Ngan-ga is influenced in part by Kurdish-Iranian asylum seeker Behrouz Boochani’s memoir about his years in detention on Manus, No Friend But the Mountains, as well as the memoir’s translator and collaborator Omid Tofighian’s framing of Boochani’s writing as “culturally situated horrific surrealism”.

Every chapter in this astonishing dance work earns its place, and long after you’ve seen this piece you will remember how you felt: the distress as fellow prisoners strip dancer Macon Riley of his clothes and dignity, leaving him naked on the floor; the empathy for dancer Emmanuel James Brown, a Bunuba / Walmajarri / Gooniyandi / Wangkatjungka performer, wailing on the floor while a dancer dressed as Captain Cook in naval regalia dances and preens on a plinth before him.

In one section of the work, Bhenji Ra, a trans person of Filipino descent,  mentions the story of Veronnica Baxter, an Aboriginal trans woman who was misgendered by authorities and placed in Silverwater jail, a men’s prison, and who then killed herself in 2009. Our political minders are not named in this work, but I am reminded that our recently ousted prime minister had the temerity to use an anti-trans candidate in the recent federal election campaign as a proxy to secure the religious right vote, and how such bigotry can have real-world impact.

The dancers move about the room, speaking brief snatches of biographies of some of those who have died in custody in Australia, among them Reza Barati on Manus, Cameron Doomadgee in a Palm Island prison cell and John Pat in a juvenile cell in Roebourne, Western Australia, after suffering a fatal blow to the head in a brawl involving off-duty police officers. Dancer Miranda Wheen looks into the surveillance camera and shares her view that her fellow white people are racist. Going on the facts presented here, how could one protest otherwise? We elect the leaders who pass the laws, and we are therefore the enablers of the racial profiling by authorities.

But Jurrungu Ngan-ga is also a “choreopolitical act of resistance, survivance and straight talking”, an “act of liberation”, according to a new academic paper by cultural dramaturg Tofighian and Marrugeku’s co-artistic directors, Yawuru/Bardi dancer and choreographer Dalisa Pigram and settler director Rachael Swain, as well as the nine dancers who are all co-collaborators in the work. Boochani, another of the consultant dramaturgs, said to me recently, “In this work you feel the resistance, and that resistance is sometimes with the body, because your body is the subject of power.”

Certainly, there is defiant, infectious joy in the communal dancing. There’s a fabulous section led by Bhenji Ra, who employs their housemother style from their Sissy Ball events to dance atop a grey metal panel demounted from the wall, encouraging everyone else to take a turn in the spotlight to strut their individuality through their dance moves.

Jurrungu Ngan-ga is a triumph of the spirit and an appeal to our better selves. It encourages us to revel in the diversity of trans and Indigenous and refugee bodies. We leave enriched by the celebration of cultural difference.


Jurrungu Ngan-ga plays at Arts House in North Melbourne as part of the Rising Festival until June 11. Steve Dow travelled to Melbourne as a guest of the Rising festival.

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Steve Dow

Steve Dow is the 2020 Walkley arts journalism award recipient.


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