Swinging between exhilaration and education, the Aborigine dance troupe Djuki Mala put on quite a show. THEO PANAYIDES meets two integral members of the unit
Yalyalwuy Gondarra spells out his name, twice, with an air of infinite patience, reclining on a chair in the lobby of the Centrum Hotel in Nicosia. “What does your first name mean?” I ask, and he seems a little startled. He repeats my question, as if trying to decipher it. I’m struck with sudden embarrassment at what may have been an ignorant question – because of course there’s no reason to assume ‘Yalyalwuy’ means something special just because it’s in Yolngu Matha, the indigenous language of North East Arnhem Land in Australia.
“It’s a wind,” he replies at last.
“Yeah, wind…” He pauses, turning it over in his mind, then nods. He speaks very softly, so I have to crane forward to catch the words. “Yup. That’s what it means.”
“It’s like a little miniature tornado,” says Joshua Bond, coming to my aid from across the table.
A ‘yalyalwuy’, it turns out, is a dust-devil – and the meaning is appropriate when you watch Yalyalwuy onstage (as I do the following night at Latsia Municipal Theatre, courtesy of the Australian High Commission), dancing up a storm, or perhaps a miniature whirlwind, as part of the indigenous Australian dance troupe Djuki Mala. Here at the Centrum, however, it’s a different story: he seems shy and a little detached, with a Lakers top and a gentle handshake, tuning out to play Dungeon Hunter 5 on a handheld console whenever I turn to talk to Josh. He’s friendly enough, but it’s fair to say we don’t quite connect.
Partly, it’s exhaustion. Cyprus is the last stop on Djuki Mala’s European tour – which has already taken them to Madrid, Barcelona, Innsbruck, Cairo and Tel Aviv – and the past two days have been “intense”, as Josh puts it. Their flight from Egypt to Israel was delayed by 12 hours, then they had a seven-hour layover in Amman, then they got up at 2am the night before to come to Cyprus – all in addition to the kind of high-energy dance routines that would wipe out any mere mortal. Partly, too, Yalyalwuy’s detachment may be put down to the fact that the troupe’s biography – as I find out the following night – is part of the show, so it must feel a bit superfluous to be talking about it in interviews.
But there’s also, I suspect, a cultural factor. Some of my questions may seem odd to a 21-year-old who’s spent almost his entire life on Elcho Island, a small, narrow islet off the coast of Arnhem Land, Northern Territory that’s home to some 2,000 people. Yalyalwuy has always lived there, with the exception of three years (2008-10) which he spent in Sydney, getting an education. “My grandfather sent me there.”
“What about your parents?” I ask automatically.
“My parents?” he replies after a pause – and sounds faintly puzzled, as if I’d changed the subject entirely.
Yes, I press on, getting flustered. Weren’t they in the picture? What do they do?
“What’s the work of my parents?”
His mum is a pre-school teacher, his dad a building contractor – but whereas a Cypriot man of Yalyalwuy’s age might be defined, to a large extent, by his parents’ occupations and background, the family in Aboriginal culture is a lot more extended. “I mean, to understand the Yolngu kinship system – the Aboriginal kinship system – is quite complex,” explains Josh patiently, “but everyone is related in some way or another. So [it] might be father, uncle, son, cousin.
“To contextualise it, just quickly, in Yolngu kinship all your father’s brothers are your fathers, and all your mother’s sisters are your sisters. So, all your father’s brothers’ sons are all your brothers. And all your father’s brothers’ daughters are all your sisters. But all your mother’s – if you’re a boy – all your mother’s brothers’ daughters are all your cousins, and all your mother’s sisters’ sons are also your cousins.”
The six members of Djuki Mala are all related, in some degree – though in fact, on this particular tour, two replacement dancers from outside Elcho Island have been brought in for Lionel Dulmanawuy, who’s had to stay home due to “family business”. Lionel was the one who kicked the whole project off in 2007, by choreographing a video performance of indigenous dancers strutting their stuff to ‘Zorba the Greek’, Yolngu-style, which his parents Frank (known as ‘Big Frank’) and Margaret then uploaded to YouTube. The video went viral, garnering 500,000 views in a couple of months, and offers flooded in for the dancers to perform professionally – which was when Big Frank, already in poor health, asked Josh to come on board as a “reliable person”, someone who spoke both Yolngu Matha and the language of contracts and lawyers.
Most of this is explained during the performance – except perhaps Josh’s particular role, which is something of a story in itself. Given that he’s white (actually born in Tasmania) and credited as director of the show, I’d assumed he was some showbiz type from Sydney who’d been hired to turn the boys into a slick ensemble – but in fact he’s an honorary Yolngu as well as Yalyalwuy’s “uncle”, having been raised on Elcho Island by the younger man’s grandparents (Josh is 34) after his own mum fell sick. He left the island in his teens to become a circus performer, actually an acrobat – “I’d done a bit of circus in Tazzie as a little feller,” he explains, sounding very Australian – and was already established as an artist when Big Frank asked him to adopt what became Djuki Mala, adding Yalyalwuy and another boy to the fold in 2009. “They were always dancing anyway,” he shrugs, “so it seemed like a natural next step for them to join the company”.
‘They were always dancing anyway’ – and dance is apparently a way of life on Elcho, indeed this part of Australia has produced a number of successful Aboriginal musicians like Yothu Yindi and Gurrumul Yunupingu (the Australian High Commissioner calls Arnhem Land a “superpower” in his speech before the show). What’s it like on the island? Is it a quiet life?
“Yeah, sometimes it’s quiet because it’s hot there,” replies Yalyalwuy in his laid-back, laconic manner. “Really hot. Like, during the day they don’t go out much”. (During the wet season, confirms Josh later, “it’s like you can cut the air with a knife, the humidity’s so intense. It gets really hot. Really, really hot.”)
So what was it like growing up there? What did he do?
“Went out with my mates, just kicked some footy, go down to the beach. You know, stuff like that.”
Did he have plans?
“Yeah, we had plans,” he replies, misunderstanding. “Go hunting, stuff like that… Everybody loves hunting, back home.”
What do they hunt?
“They hunt fish. Stingrays, mud crabs. Turtles. Kangaroos.”
Was he already dancing as a child?
He pauses, like I’ve said something totally bizarre again. “Well, I grew up being a dancer.”
Yalyalwuy did actually have plans for his life, indeed he’s quite restless by Elcho standards; he wanted to see the world – mission accomplished – and talks about a possible career in acting when he gets too old for Djuki Mala (he’s already done some TV, hosting an indigenous dancing show). Yet there’s also something else, an unspoken undertow to our conversation, having to do with the fact that – like every other aspect of being Aboriginal in Australia – life on Elcho isn’t totally idyllic.
“There’s still a lot of racism within Australia,” affirms Josh grimly, “and a complete whitewashing of history”. Consider the fact that, even today, indigenous people are being kicked off their land: “It was just announced last week in the media, 25 indigenous communities, the government are closing them down and kicking people off so they can mine it for the coal and the uranium”. Or consider the fact, getting closer to home, that Arnhem Land is completely ‘dry’, you can’t buy a drop of alcohol there – not for moral or religious reasons but because, historically, the British invaders used alcohol as a deliberate weapon against the previously-unaccustomed natives. “I mean, the British attempted genocide of Aboriginal people in Australia. They tried to kill everybody! And then, when that didn’t work, they tried to assimilate everybody, and they tried to breed out Aboriginal people. Everything they’ve done is a deliberate attempt to try and destroy Aboriginal people and Aboriginal culture”.
Djuki Mala’s show at Latsia Municipal Theatre is rather schizophrenic; so, it occurs to me, is my conversation with Yalyalwuy Gondarra and Joshua Bond. The performance is unusual because the high-energy numbers – ranging from traditional dance to Greek, Indian, hip-hop, Motown, even ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ – alternate with a rather lugubrious video account of the group’s genesis and sombre messages about showing kids “the healthy way” to live, so we’re constantly see-sawing between exhilaration and education. Our conversation is unusual in the same way, because Yalyalwuy potters on his console and talks of dancing and hunting and having fun while Josh does the heavy lifting, telling me of the deep historical scar in the Australian psyche, still not completely admitted to, let alone healed. “The history is still not being taught in the schools. It’s not being acknowledged”.
Is there anger on Elcho Island? Yalyalwuy shakes his head, once again giving the impression that my question doesn’t seem entirely relevant: “No, there’s no anger. It’s always been completely peaceful”. Just a few minutes later, however, Josh talks furiously of how alcohol abuse in indigenous communities is so often exaggerated to make them look bad – “It’s another way to demonise Aboriginal people within the media… Excuse my French, it’s bullshit!” – and tells me of the ongoing “Third World health conditions” faced by indigenous people in what’s supposedly a modern, Western country.
There’s an obvious irony here, the argument that Aboriginals lack agency over their own lives being made to me by a white man instead of an Aboriginal. Does Josh feel a bit protective of his adopted brethren, as an outsider with experience of white Australia? “I’m not considered an outsider,” he replies, “I don’t consider myself an outsider”. Admittedly he now lives in New South Wales, to be closer to his children after a separation, but Elcho will always be home; they’re his family, he says, so he’s bound to feel protective – “but also yeah, to a certain extent, Big Frank and Margaret entrusted these guys into my care when we’re on the road, to make sure we’re getting treated respectfully and getting presented in the right context”.
Djuki Mala’s show is all about ‘the right context’, a cross-cultural journey aiming to challenge preconceived ideas. “A lot of people just want to see what we refer to as ‘the ooga-booga’,” he notes acerbically, i.e. tribesmen with spears and painted faces – and the show starts with that only to move beyond it, placing Aboriginal identity in “a contemporary global context”; ‘Zorba the Greek’ in particular, and the explanation of why Lionel chose that particular song for his video (as a way of “saying thank you to a Greek lady” who’d looked after his sister), brings the house down. Oddly – or not so oddly – I connect more strongly with Yalyalwuy while I’m in the audience watching him dance than while sitting just a few feet away from him, chatting in the lobby of the Centrum.
Maybe he’s just too laid-back, too good-natured. As with all oppressed peoples, says Josh, a sense of humour – the ability not to take life too seriously – is key to the survival of Aboriginal Australia. “What do you do for fun?” I ask Yalyalwuy. “Dancing,” he replies in his soft dreamy mumble, as if the answer were obvious. But what about when he isn’t dancing? Any interests, hobbies? “I just play my PS4,” he says, and chuckles. He pauses again, as if he owed it to my strange line of questioning to examine the statement as closely as possible. “That’s what I do,” he concludes. “Just play PS4”. And he gets back to doing just that, doubtless thinking past tomorrow’s show to the end of the tour and his imminent return to Elcho Island.