Dancing Across the Tidal Zone – Marrugeku’s Gudirr Gudirr


Think of the north-west coast of Australia, and you’ll probably dream up the bright turquoise of the Indian Ocean, thick monsoonal skies, and surreally bright red earth. Not inaccurate – but the north-west is equally characterised by its tidal zones, where things are constantly changing in an ever-present that hovers between land and ocean – where the future advances almost unseen. And if you’re out there, and you don’t notice the tide turn, you might be in serious trouble.

Marrugeku’s Gudirr Gudirr is named for the bird that warns of the turning tide – in Yawuru language it’s called the guwayi bird. In contrast to the company’s large-scale previous works, Gudirr Gudirr is a solo piece, performed by Dalisa Pigram – self-described ‘daughter of Broome’, member of the legendary Pigram family of musicians, Yawuru language teacher, and Co-Director of Marrugeku.

It was Dalisa Pigram’s grandfather, Patrick Dodson – revered by many as ‘the father of reconciliation’ – who drew her attention to the guwayi bird. “My grandfather found similarities in the function of this bird and the work I do in my community helping to keep my language alive,” says Pigram, “and also the work I do with Marrugeku.”

“It was the perfect starting point to make a piece exploring ways that the tide is turning metaphorically for my community. The Kimberley region holds one of the highest suicide rates in the world and I believe we need to shine a light on that issue. We also have the threat of major industrialisation just around the corner, which will change our country and people forever… We need to look at new ways to take our cultural knowledge forward, keeping old ways strong in a new light.”

Pigram’s contemporary dance language is uniquely influenced by her Malay, Pilipino, and Indigenous Bardi and Yawuru heritages, drawing on practices such as the Malaysian martial art Silat, gymnastics, and traditional Indigenous movements. Her movement in Gudirr Gudirr is fluid, watchful, jagged or combative by turns – her dance seductively carves out space, claims it and brings it back to herself. Co-Choreographer, Koen Augustijnen, of leading Belgian dance collective Les Ballets C de la B, adds his task-based method to the creation of the dance, says Pigram.

“His craft of using what a performer brings in their body to the floor…seems to be both natural and challenging for me. He draws out the essence of a performer in a physical way that surprises…things that you might not realise you have inside sometimes.”

While Gudirr Gudirr is a small-scale work, the creative depth of its team is substantial: its collaborators also include Sam Serruys and Stephen Pigram on music; and sets and video by Australian Venice-Biennale representative Vernon Ah Kee, employing his signature graphic style and projected text and images for the work.

Ultimately, says Pigram, the role of the collaborative team is to bring a story to life – and for Marrugeku – whose aim is to create work that is both contemporary and responsive to the communities it works with – this means long-term developments that include direct consultation with Elders about the direction and focus of the work.

“We sit and talk with the Elders of the community and listen well to what they tell us; and then try to respond to their thoughts with what we create. We are also culturally guided at every stage of development, ensuring we show respect for the stories we then gain permission to explore in a creative way.”

“This process takes time and builds genuine relationships in the community, sometimes bridging the older and younger generations, so that the community really benefits from our process. Our productions are then multi-layered with the knowledge that we gain…”

The story of Gudirr Gudirr is both metaphor and literal reality – the predicaments that inspire Pigram’s rocking, twitching and wringing of hands, her withheld punches and agitated stance, are never far away. But equally, the sensuous, slightly fractured movements, the thick ponytail swishing like a limb behind her, the keen dancerly alertness, are a story of power and resilience, utterly contemporary.

Urszula Dawkins