Wrong Skin. Chooky Dancers. Spring Dance 2010 (3)

2-12 September 2010. Sydney Opera House, 

Wrong Skin, performed by the indigenous company Chooky Dancers, is really a play with dance sequences included. Its narrative line concerns traditional law, in particular as it relates to kinship and marriage in indigenous society, and the difficulties of adhering to tradition in the face of an encroaching Western world with quite different values. It might even be called a version of Romeo and Juliet, or an indigenous West Side Story.

The story is not spoken in English but in an Aboriginal language spoken by the Yolngu people of Elcho Island off north east Arnhem Land where the Chooky Dancers have their home. As the story begins the words of the protagonists are translated into English and the translation projected onto a screen. The audience learns that in Yolngu culture marriage between people of opposite moieties—the Yirridja and Dhuwa moieties—is forbidden as being between people of the ‘wrong skin’. And the inevitable has happened. Two young lovers find themselves in the category of ‘wrong skin’. After this initial explanation to English-only speakers, there is no more translation and it is a credit to the strength of the show and its direction that we don’t need further translations. The storyline is perfectly easy to follow and understand.

The dance sequences range from a reference to Zorba the Greek Yolngu style, a piece of choreography that became a worldwide hit via YouTube in 2007, to a take on that iconic Hollywood movie Singing in the Rain complete with clips from the movie and a traditional rain dance that merges into a dance sequence in contemporary mode complete with umbrellas. The dance is high energy, youthfully raw, and powerful in its capacity to carry a message. It is also sometimes funny, although not perfect in its attempts at comedy. At times I felt the humour was overdone when less might have been more.

The work is not without modern day political implications either. The footage that is projected as backcloth often shows appalling living conditions endured by some Elcho Island inhabitants. And on one occasion we are shown on one of the television monitors that dot the stage an excerpt from one of former prime minister John Howard’s less than acceptable speeches on indigenous issues. But again it is a credit to the direction of the show that there is a great balance between politics and the telling of the main story in words, music and dance.

I loved this show. At last a group of dancers has used a technique that the music world has been using for some time now. We had a mashup from a dance group and got a derivative new work, as we should from a mashup, which was also provocative and entertaining.

Open the link for an Opera House interview with the director of Wrong Skin, Nigel Jamieson. *(See note below)

Michelle Potter, 18 September 2010

* Postscript, May 2011: Sadly the interview mentioned above is no longer available online from the Sydney Opera House site and I have removed the broken link. The original version of Zorba by the Chooky Dancers is still going strong on YouTube.

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