Review: Djoondal and Perth Moves, Perth Festival

A thrillingly contemporary retelling of an ancient story and a brief but passionate celebration of dance opened this year’s Perth Festival.

Stars shine down over Lake Joondalup, where for thousands of years the Noongar people have come to look at the night sky reflected in the lake’s dark waters. Stretched out on picnic blankets and perched in folding chairs, a new audience gathered to experience an old story: the Dreaming story of Djoondal, the spirit woman whose long white hair is the Milky Way, and of the spirit children/stars that shine as they cling to her flowing locks.

The signature event of Perth Festival’s opening weekend, Djoondal was a free, 30-minute sound and light show that presented this traditional story in a strikingly contemporary way, using drones and lasers, as well as a sophisticated and stirring sound design to bring the story to life.  

Before the work began, as audiences settled in, the sounds of birdsong, frogs and insects could be heard, a subtle layering of recorded sound overlaying and emphasising the sounds of the evening. Once Djoondal was underway, subtlety was replaced by moments of shock, as a layering of carefully edited media bites spoke of racism, dispossession and deaths in custody, but also there was sonic bliss, generated by a thumping and thrilling soundtrack of electronic beats.

Overhead, a synchronised fleet of illuminated drones created a glittering artificial moon, a moon that wept lonely tears because it was alone in the night sky – tears that fell to earth and became the spirit children that would eventually become swept up in Djoondal’s hair.

Here was an HG Wells reference, with the familiar line from Jeff Wayne’s musical The War of the Worlds about ‘minds immeasurably superior to ours [regarding] this Earth with envious eyes’ updated for a First Nations perspective: ‘And yet across the gulf of space, men with weapons immeasurably superior to ours regarded this boodjar with envious eyes, and slowly and surely they drew their plans against us.’

Sound and lighting cues evoked the Blitz – sweeping searchlights and air raid sirens striking fear briefly into all our hearts – a reminder of the impact of colonisation and invasion on this country’s First Peoples, but also of art’s ability to help us empathise and walk in one another’s shoes.

Then came a message of hope – a stirring take on The Imagination Declaration of the Youth Forum from Garma 2019 – a call to this nation’s political leaders to listen to young Aboriginal voices, to think differently.

‘With 60,000 years of genius and imagination in our hearts and minds, we can be one of the groups of people that transform the future of life on earth, for the good of us all.

‘We can design the solutions that lift islands up in the face of rising seas, we can work on creative agricultural solutions that are in sync with our natural habitat, we can re-engineer schooling, we can invent new jobs and technologies, and we can unite around kindness.

‘We are not the problem, we are the solution.’  

The final image before the drones vanished into the darkness – leaving only the stars, the creation story of which we’d just witnessed – was of the Milky Way itself, seen from a viewpoint outside our galaxy as its spiral arms turned slowly against the night sky.

‘Djoondal’ at Perth Festival. Photo: Jarrad Russell.

Presented over three nights on the shores of Lake Joondalup, located approximately 30 minutes by car from Perth’s CBD, Djoondal was led by a team of First Nations creatives, including Wadjuk Noongar man Ian ‘Moopa’ Wilkes, the project’s Director and Lead Creator; Key Creative and Illustrator Rubeun Yorkshire, a Noongar, Yamatji and Wongatha man; and Key Creative and Lighting Designer Chloe Ogilvie, a Yamatji Nanda woman.

Birdiya Noongar Cultural Consultants Roma ‘Yibiyung’ Winmar and Vivienne ‘Binyarn’ Hansen also played key roles in the work’s development.

A beautiful encapsulation of the 2023 Perth Festival’s theme of Djinda (the Noongar word for ‘stars’), Djoondal was also notable for bringing the Festival to the people instead of forcing people from Perth’s northern suburbs to trek into the city centre in order to experience art.

Despite the attendant crowds, event management was top notch, with a well-supplied series of shuttle buses smoothly ferrying audiences away after the show and dropping them off at the nearby train station and cark park. Compared to the prolonged exits and chaos associated with leaving some music festivals I’ve experienced over the years, Perth Festival’s event management was world-class, while the production as a whole was memorable, beautiful and inspiring.

STRUT Dance’s ’10 Duets on a Theme of Rescue’ at Perth Festival. Photo: Jed Lyall.

Also held over the Festival’s opening weekend was Perth Moves, a free outdoor dance program presented in the courtyard of the State Theatre Centre of WA.

Presented by STRUT Dance, the National Choreographic Centre of WA, and featuring a range of participatory dance classes, talks and DJs, the highlight of Perth Moves was undoubtedly the twice-a-night performance of Crystal Pite’s 10 Duets on a Theme of Rescue, a compact work of just 15 minutes duration but featuring deep wells of emotion.

Evoking yearning and desire one moment and heartbreak the next, the work hinted at a rich range of influences, from classical ballet to street dance. Here a dancer ran in desperate slow motion as their partner pulled inevitably away; there a dancer’s fingers framed the memory of a face. There was passion, connection and moments of everyday intimacy all told through clean, fluid and expressive movement.

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Skilfully performed by STRUT’s assembled team of Australian and New Zealand dancers, 10 Duets on a Theme of Rescue packed a huge punch despite its brief duration. If I could, I would have seen it twice a night every night that I was in Perth – and perhaps even taken to the dancefloor afterwards for an introduction to Latin dance or a DJ-inspired freeform boogie.

10-12 February, Lake Joondalup as part of Perth Festival
See the festival’s website for a full list of credits.

10 Duets on a Theme of Rescue
Choreography: Crystal Pite
Repetiteur: Cindy Welik-Salgado
Lighting Design: Jim French
Lighting realised by: Peter Young
Costume design: Linda Chow
Costumes made by: Nicole Marrington
Composer: Cliff Martinez, Solaris Soundtrack
Performed by: Georgia Van Gils, Holly Finch, Hope Keogh, Jayden Wall, Luther Wilson, Mitch Aldridge, Oli Mathieson, Rhiana Katz, Scott Galbraith, Zachary Wilson

8-12 February, State Theatre Centre of WA Courtyard

The writer visited Perth as a guest of Perth Festival.

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM, and serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Living Legend in 2017. In 2020 he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize. Most recently, Richard was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Green Room Awards Association in June 2021. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts