groundUp! | Bernadette WalongImage - Heidrun Lohr

Intertwining movement with live voice, installation, film and music, GroundUP! needs to be viewed in its entirety as a piece of performance art rather than just a contemporary indigenous dance production. Choreographed by former Bangarra alumni, Bernadette Walong, GroundUP! takes its inspiration from the Aboriginal mythologies of the rainbow serpent, also known as the water snake. A prominent feature of Dreamtime, the serpent represents fertility and rebirth. Rather than literally choreographing a myth or story, Walong uses the cyclical nature of life as a base theme for this work, with the intention of illustrating how creation myths can apply to different contexts. The result is an ambitious and imaginative piece with an interesting handling of mediums, where at times, they successfully culminate.

As soon as the audience enters the Performance Space of the industrial Redfern arts venue Carriageworks, the performers are set in place and are in character. The stage is vast, (considering the cast of four), with the rear and side walls used to project live and edited film, while dotted throughout are suspended vines to evoke the aerial roots typical of the swamp landscape. Walong, who also performs, is curled towards the front with her back facing us. A young woman, (who does not feature for the remaining duration of the performance), gently taps her fingers up and down Walong’s lithe limbs as if massaging her in some kind of ceremonial preparation for what is to unfold. A camerawoman zooms in and out of this intimate ritual with the footage projected live on the back screen. The three remaining female performers are further down stage, chattering away like birds in an indigenous dialect. Though most of us can’t understand what they’re saying, the sound of excitable female banter is unmistakable.

Live vocal improvisation in GroundUP! is in fact as much a feature as the physical component of the performance. Vocal designer, Jill Brown, devised phrasing that’s supposedly typical of many indigenous vocal forms, and though this may have been authentic, it at times felt monotonous and distracting from the many other elements going on in this busy work. The performers, however, execute this to the best of their ability, considering that for most of them, movement would be their specialty.

As images of wheat blowing in the wind intersperses with Calvin Rore’s organic musical score of natural and synthesised sounds, the performance takes on a more meditative quality. The choreography wavers from literal images of gathering and fishing, to more figurative bird-like movement, no doubt to convey the integral link between people and nature in Aboriginal culture. Walong’s aim to create contemporary relevance to the creation myth was evident at times, though only in hindsight. The four dancers at one point take on the air of modern, empowered women as they strut the stage Sex-and-the-City-style. During the opening, the score is a bizarre composition of the clanging of washing-up, which is a startling contrast with the instinctive, tribal movements. This domestic soundtrack, however, brings this indigenous setting a contemporary context, though in a very arbitrary way.

I’ve been to a few Bangarra productions but this is probably the most abstract work I’ve seen. In terms of meaning, what seemed to stand out more explicitly in GroundUP! for me, was the universal theme of female kinship. From the lively conversing between the women, to the gentle way in which they ceremoniously paint each other’s backs, there was a strong sense of female nurturing and camaraderie.

It’s also interesting that all four performers physically look very different, too. With varying builds and different ethnicities, the cast add an extra dynamic quality to the production. Each also bring their strengths; Barbra Adjei, like Walong, has danced with Bangarra and is familiar with the indigenous roots of the choreography; Victoria Chiu has had a more classical training; while Deirdre Taueki is a happy medium excelling in classical and contemporary. Walong uses the girls’ fortes to her advantage, devising sections to showcase what they do best, at one point, with Chiu and Taueki on point.

GroundUP! certainly has its high points like some beautiful foot work and creative choreography, though these seemed to be overshadowed by excessive ambiguity. The multiple mediums in this production also sometimes worked against it. Walong’s work is certainly pushing boundaries however and for some, it would even be ticking boxes.

Bernadette Walong

Venue: Performance Space @ Carriage Works, 245 Wilson St, Eveleigh, NSW 2015
Dates: 14 - 23 Aug, 2008, 8pm, (23 Aug, 5pm). Free artist talk on 21 Aug after the show.
Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 723 038

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