We wait in the foyer of the Bankstown Arts Centre. The doors to the courtyard open and we’re guided to a circle pattern on the grass, lined with feathers and cloth. Eucalyptus leaves are smoking in a pile on one point on the circumference of the circle. We’re welcomed to country by a Darug elder then two men sing and play the clapsticks. A group of young women dance inside the cirle. The songs are in language and the dances seem traditional (to my limited knowledge). There’s contentment and maybe a little pride in the dancers’ faces as their eyes meet with those of people known to them in the crowd. I happen to be sitting next to a girl they look up at, smile and nod at often, as they perform the dances one after the other: Ochre, Welcome, Smoking, Spirit, Possum, Willy Wagtail, Wave and Feather.
There’s a short break and then we’re ushered into the theatre. The rows closest to the stage on all sides are reserved for ‘friends of the artists’, my guess is that this is almost half the seats in the theatre. I sit further back with my own family. An electronic music track is playing. There are projections on the wall at the back of the stage. The young women, in different costumes now and sitting in pairs, sift salt through their fingers and sprinkle it around them. The music echoes the waves of the ocean. We’re later told this song is about salt water healing. Another is about tree sap medicine. Yet another about young women falling prey and finding themselves in abusive cycles.
In this sense, Gili: to iginite the spark (created by Peta Strachan and Jannawi Dance Clan) is also social and political commentary meant to “spark conversation”, (as one of the dancers put it in the Q and A afterwards), on contemporary issues facing young Aboriginal people in urban communities, especially those facing women. It looks back at traditional cultural practices of healing, and asks the question: is there a place for these methods today?
This performance was the first ‘showing’ – a work in progress. Personally, I enjoyed it even in this early stage of development. I liked that it contextualised the different dances (traditional and contemporary) by placing them on different stages – the courtyard and the theatre space respectively. I also liked that this was a work created and performed predominantly by women – among them emerging artist Kassidy Waters (a recent NAISDA graduate currently studying with Sydney Dance Company), who apart from performing, we were told created all the projections and the music, as well as choreographing one of the pieces.
What I enjoyed most though, was my own personal, reflexive reaction to the performance. To me, Gili felt like a gentle invocation for healing, where the space was created for the audience to enter into and contemplate the issues laid before us, interpreted through dance.