Dance review: Tracker, Perth Festival

Wiradjuri director-choreographer Daniel Riley's powerful tribute to his Great-Great Uncle, Alec ‘Tracker’ Riley.

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers: this review contains the name of a deceased person. 

Tracker is a co-production between Australian Dance Theatre (ADT) and ILBIJERRI Theatre Company, and is also a Major Festival Initiative (MFI) commission. Its Perth Festival showing marks its second season after its world premiere at Sydney Festival in January, and is a precursor to its final first tour stop at Adelaide Festival later this month.

It tells the story of Wiradjuri man Alec ‘Tracker’ Riley, born in 1884, who became the first Indigenous man to rise to the rank of Sergeant in the NSW police force (in Dubbo). He earned his moniker for his superior tracking skills, which led to breakthrough arrests of countless criminals on behalf of the Crown. It was a role he held for over 40 years. On retirement he was held in exceptionally high esteem by his peers, yet received no official pension from the government on account of his Indigenous identity.

Tracker Riley is the Great Great Uncle of ADT Artistic Director Daniel Riley. Riley choreographed and co-directed the work alongside ILBIJERRI Artistic Director Rachael Maza AM. Although he plays no onstage role, Daniel Riley’s voice and touch is everywhere throughout. 

In the opening scene we meet a young Indigenous man named Archie (undoubtedly a version of Riley) who has travelled to his ancestral Country in the middle of the night. With a torch in one hand and a small paper map in the other, Archie curses to himself as he realises he’s a bit lost – he can’t work out where he is, and starts to question why he came.

From here, a series of poignant juxtapositions play out. Archie’s present day experiences (untethered and searching) appear alongside those of his Great Uncle Riley (also searching, but in different realities almost a century ago).

Ari Maza Long plays both Archie and Tracker Riley, and flickers adeptly between the two characters. His text-based narratives allow insights into aspects of Australian history that are still too often buried, broken or obscured.

These windows into the past and our guides through the present also feature beautiful sequences of abstract movement, choreographed by Riley, and performed by dancers Tyrel Dulvarie, Rika Hamaguchi and Kaine Sultan-Babij. 

This trio are, quite obviously, the piece’s resonant heartbeat as they move together in wonderful synergies, canons and elisions. Their articulate expressions, and Riley’s choreography, at times outshine the narrative script in nuance and sensitivity.

The set design, by Jonathan Jones, and staging (in the round) are other significant artistic features, and allow further symbolic meanings to surface. At times whispering veils of semi-transparent curtains wrap the stage. They obscure our views and frustrate our access of past and present truths.

The sound score – co-composed by sound designer James Henry and musician Gary Watling – is another vital force. Its all-encompassing beats and rhythms feel urgent, threatening and menacing at times – yet also speak of endurance, persistence and survival. These composers have clearly triumphed.

Read: Exhibition review: Bunuru exhibitions, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts

Overall, the creative team of all First Nations artists have threaded together a rich array of stories and structures to achieve a work of moving parallels, crossovers and junctions. The production’s intricate layers are like callings to us to look more closely at the past, and sharpen our eyes to its complex ripple effects on the present day. It’s a generous offering that leaves impressions with both subtlety and tenderness. Hopefully it will tour beyond Adelaide and continue to evolve in the hands of its strong creative collective.

Tracker, by Australian Dance Theatre (ADT) and ILBIJERRI Theatre Company
Presented by Perth Festival
Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre of WA
Co-director and choreographer: Daniel Riley
Co-director: Rachael Maza AM
Writers: Ursula Yovich and Amy Sole
Set designer: Jonathan Jones
Composer and sound designer: James Henry
Composer and live musician: Gary Watling
Lighting designer: Chloë Ogilvie

Costume designer: Ailsa Paterson
Dramaturgs: Amy Sole and Jennifer Medway
Project elders: Aunty Shirley Mathews and Aunty Ann Cribb
Wiradjuri language translator: Aunty Dianne Riley McNaboe
Scenic artist: Merindah Funnell
Performers: Tyrel Dulvarie, Rika Hamaguchi, Ari Maza Long and Kaine Sultan-Babij

Tickets: $42-$49
Tracker will be performed in Perth until 4 March 2023 before touring to the Adelaide Festival from 10-18 March.

ArtsHub's Arts Feature Writer Jo Pickup is based in Perth. An arts writer and manager, she has worked as a journalist and broadcaster for media such as the ABC, RTRFM and The West Australian newspaper, contributing media content and commentary on art, culture and design. She has also worked for arts organisations such as Fremantle Arts Centre, STRUT dance, and the Aboriginal Arts Centre Hub of WA, as well as being a sessional arts lecturer at The Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA).