Performance review: Jurrungu Ngan-Ga (Straight Talk), State Theatre Centre of WA

A dance performance that takes us into the brutality of prisons and detention centres.

Jurrungu Ngan-Ga is a theatrical dance production that tells stories of Indigenous and migrant incarceration. Using visceral choreography and performances, the work highlights the plight of people sequestered at the intersections of incarceration and racialised marginalisation. This is a defiant work replete with confronting “straight talk” about racism, and features a highly diverse and talented cast of performers. Each performance in the show is uniquely evocative and moving. The choreography and dramaturgy intensely channel repressed rage and the music and dialogue bring a powerful rhythmic cadence to the stories being told. 

This production is distinguished by its inventive and effective set design, lighting and camerawork. A row of demountable lattice frames forms the main backdrop. These frames represent prison walls and hide inner chambers where captivity is taken to its extreme limits.

While dancers perform at the front of the stage, we see silhouettes in the background depicting recognisable scenes of physical restraint and captivity. The recreation of infamous imagery from the news provokes an emotional response in the audience; the immediate recognition of the tableau has the effect of jolting viewers out of their reverie and forcing them to think about the real-life stories at the heart of the performance.

This contrasts with the use of chandeliers that descend from the ceiling and create a luminous and fantastical effect that takes the choreography in a more ethereal direction. The work straddles both registers confidently. 

The use of cameras and perspectives to recreate the panopticon effect of a prison yard is astonishingly innovative and astute. The cameras and projection show the performers from the perspective of a typical surveillance camera and thus create and augment an unusual and immersive multidimensional experience for the audience. The choreography and directing strategically deploy this additional layer of performativity, with performers turning around to bring a confrontational style using defiant gestures, facial expressions and words for the surveillance camera.

What we witness is the anguished and angry protest of the incarcerated. There is a scene depicting the ravaging and stripping of an inmate who is pinned to the floor. After being subjected to this violence, the dancer turns around to look straight at the surveillance camera – anguished, crestfallen, defeated and yet still defiant. This is a moment of tremendous poignancy. The production would not have been the same without this powerful evocation of the panopticon effect and it redounds to the set and lighting designers’ credit. 

There are a few transitions in the register of the performance that require the audience to mentally shift gears, but these diversify the narrative in a way that may not have been possible otherwise. The work may be described as a melding of genres and styles. As a deliberately intercultural and polyphonic work, it draws on dance, performance styles and rhythms that span the spectrum of the performing arts, from traditional Aboriginal dance to modern house and vogue. 

Having faced pandemic-related delays, this production has now toured the country and overseas, and is currently being performed in Perth. WA has a special role in its conception, with creators Dalisa Pigram and Rachael Swain having collaborated with Yawuru elder Patrick Dodson to develop the concept.

Read: Music review: Britten’s War Requiem, QPAC, Brisbane Festival

At the opening night at the State Theatre Centre of WA, the leaders of both Marrugeku and Black Swan Theatre Company spoke evocatively of the team’s creative journey. The powerful artistic collaborations that underpin Marrugeku’s work and the extraordinary interweaving of Indigenous and migrant stories mark Jurrungu Ngan-Ga as a unique artistic achievement. 

Jurrungu Ngan-Ga (Straight Talk)
Created by Marrugeku
Black Swan State Theatre Company of WA
Concept: Dalisa Pigram and Rachael Swain with Patrick Dodson
Choreography: Dalisa Pigram with the performers
Direction: Rachael Swain
Performance dramaturgy: Hildegard de Vuyst
Cultural dramaturgy: Behrouz Boochani, Patrick Dodson, Omid Tofighian

Music: Sam Serruys, Paul Charlier and Rhyan Clapham (aka DOBBY)
Lyrics: Beni (Bjah) Hasler
Sound design: Sam Serruys and Paul Charlier
Set design: Abdul-Rahman Abdullah

Costume design: Andrew Treloar
Lighting design: Damien Cooper
Additional choreography: Krump Army: Stacy Peke aka Red Ladybrui5er

Performers: Czack (Ses) Bero, Emmanuel James Brown, Chandler Connell, Luke Currie-Richardson, Issa el Assaad, Zachary Lopez (previous), Macon Escobal Riley (present), Bhenji Ra, Feras Shaheen and Miranda Wheen

Tickets: $24-$95

Jurrungu Ngan-Ga (Straight Talk) will be performed until 23 September 2023.

Arjun Rajkhowa lives in Perth and enjoys writing about local arts and culture.