Vale Douglas Wright and thank you Brian Carbee

As an Australian indigenous contemporary dance artist I am always called on to articulate what that means. My reply has been well rehearsed as I explain that dance is an integral part of community cultural engagement, ergo the theatre has become an important site for cultural action.

I have always touted proudly that the dance (yes, contemporary) is an excuse for the Aboriginal community to assemble and that the dance is more than mere entertainment. This is how I distinguished it from the ‘mainstream’. Yes, I am that naive.

If ever there were a moment when I could literally eat my words it was the weekend after the passing of New Zealand-born choreographer Douglas Wright.

Last Saturday I left the house in the nick of time as per usual, jumping on my bike to peddle like the clappers to Sydney Dance Company to do Brian Carbee’s release-based contemporary class. I have always stated that Brian’s class feels like body medicine as he guides us through a gentle series of dynamic sequences aimed to increase range of motion almost on the sly. I have been attending this class for twenty years now and I attribute my ability to be able to move at all to this weekly ritual. 

As was expected, at the end of the class Brian taught us choreography. He usually stays with one piece, augmenting the sequence incrementally, until it takes shape as a dance. Brian is also an actor and a script writer and his work is imbued with subtle, nuanced dance theatre. This is probably the true reason I turn up so often. I get to channel my playful, my heroic, my weak and my fierce.

This week was different. For starters he prefaced the routine with a specific introduction to the music. Something I’ve not heard him do before. He informed us that the music was considered to be one of the saddest pieces ever written. It was (and still is as we are still with it) Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber. Initially curious and bummed, ‘That’s the last thing I need,’ I thought.

I don’t know when it dawned on me, but I soon surmised this dance was Brian’s elegy for his close friend and peer, Wright. The dance began with an arm gently encircling a body that was not there. This motif was repeated and was followed by an expansive reaching with the arms outwards, beyond ourselves and upward. Then, in contrast, the arms came together to be at the solar plexis, the back of the neck and then the thighs in turn, in lament.  

It was this beating action which reminded me of a dance I have only ever performed when invited by the Yolngu Gumatj clan, as part of the NAISDA Dance College contingent, at the Garma Festival in NE Arnhem Land. In the Garma bungal (dance) the general audience were informed that we were performing a dance of mourning for the Gulkala (stringybark) trees where the ancestor spirit Ganbulabula created the yidarki (didgeridoo). The trees were bulldozed to make way for bauxite mining. As part of that dance we repeatedly struck the underside of our heads with closed fists as two women touched the painted Gulkala hollow log in the centre and wailed. 

While performing Brian’s dance I was compelled to execute it with the same degree of solemnity as the Yolngu mourning dance.

I had seen an outpouring of emotion for Douglas on Facebook through various artist reminiscences, praising Wright’s skill for his craft. But in the execution of Brian’s dance I felt I was given licence to acknowledge Wright’s impact through the medium which best described his life. In a place where no words were needed. A place bigger than words.

Though this act I was prompted to reflect on the passing of Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Russell Page and the morning class led by Joseph Brown. Brown was preparing us for the day’s events which included a memorium at the Opera House where the flag flew at half mast. In that class he played and we danced to Jeff Buckley’s version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

After leaving Brian’s class the experience carried me through the day, peppering it with memories of Douglas Wright. I remembered a talk/ Q&A Douglas gave after a screening of Haunting Douglas at the Dendy Opera Quays where he revealed he had to be in another room, sans video monitor, while his company performed, after a compulsive outburst which brought the show to a halt. I remembered seeing Black Milk at the Opera House Drama Theatre and thinking, this is the kind of work I want to make.

Gulkala at Garma
-one of the many obituaries for Douglas Wright

Vicki Van Hout