James Waites - Blog - jameswaites.ilatech.org
The evolution of the Sydney Festival since its inception in 1977 has been slow and often daggy. In the beginning it was crap mass appeal shows (not good mass appeal) and fun rides for kids in Hyde Park. We have been through quite a few artistic directors, all who have put their stamp on the programing – but not on the city.
It’s never been like Adelaide was in the late 1970s and and through the 1980s, when and where many of my generation discovered what great contemporary theatre and music was all about. Even when Anthony Steel ran the ran the Sydney Festival in the late 90s – rather briefly – he could nor quite pull it up to the standard he had been able to achieve so significantly back in his Adelaide days. I think that’s why he didn’t stay too long. It’s not only the challenge of making a mark on a bigger city, but where a lot of vested interest groups – City Council, State Government including the Tourism portfolio – vie to shape the program to their own ends. Also the Sydney Festival has had to struggle to create a unique and influential lineup of gigs since new (and rather sophisticated) programing options have become increasingly available with the opening of the City Recital Hall, the Sydney Theatre, and in particular a much more dynamic commissioning & programing policy at the Sydney Opera House. Good stuff flows through this city now – festival standard – all year round.
As a result the Sydney Festival has struggled to find an identity and, despite some good shows on the way, it wasn’t until Fergus Linahan conceived of Festival First Night and introduced a whole lot of niche contemporary small music groups – pop, funk, electro etc – that we started to see a program that somehow spoke to Sydney - ‘our city in summer’. Amusingly, in seach of a brand, the city has been obliged to identify itself as the chief object of celebration. The Sydney Festival we are told celebrates Sydney! Narcissistic yes – yet, if you know this city, somewhat apt.
But we’ve never had a festival (so far as I can I recall) – until this year – that has celebrated the city of Sydney by way of a genuinely potent theme. And, moreso, a notably a provocative one!
This is Lindy Hume’s third and last as Artistic Director, and it is exciting to see she has thrown caution to the wind – at last someone has – and given the Festival a job to do beyond helping us pass the time during a slow hot time of year. This is the Black Capital theme – a chance for Sydneysiders and visitors to look at the Aboriginal roots to this city’s culture – and more particularly its contemporary manifestations.
My ‘first contact’, as it were, with the theme was a show last Sunday at Carriageworks called Walk a Mile in My Shoes, a concert that combined songs and mostly autobiographic story-telling, from six exceedingly talented Indigenous women – across a fairly wide age range – from New Zealand, Australia and Papua New Guinea Namely: Ursula Yovich, Emma Donovan, Ngaiire, Merenia, Maisey Rika and Whirimako Black. Known cumulatively as the Barefoot Divas, these great strong beautiful women were ably supported by the Barefoot Band – six good men – themselves boasting a diverse cultural heritage taking in Maori, Greece, Sicily and Peru – and a little bit of good old Aussie.
The show is idea of Vicki Gordon, A longtime Australian resident of Maori heritage, who has worked for years now supporting, organising, producing and promoting a wide of mostly music-related performance projects mostly for indigenous women. These have included Australia’s first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Contemporary Women’s Music Festival and a training program for women DJs – SCRATCH. Her list of credits in pretty phenomenal, and it just reminds you just how hard some people are working behind the scenes to help create opportunities – this show being an excellent example: not just for such wonderful artists to shine, but for us to enjoy!
In an astute partnership, Gordon invited writer Alana Valentine to tease out a narrative structure from the life stories of these women. This is what Valentine is known for – with plays like Run Rabbit Run and Parramatta Girls drawn from extensive interviewing. The show hasn’t had a lot of time to be pulled together, so there is a touch of self-consciousness to the ‘talking parts’ of the show. Nothing bothersome, and no doubt it will pick up flow quickly. Mainly because what Valentine has drawn from the women is strong and true. Some the stories are funny, some sad, some cute, while Ursula Yovich reminds us that being a Black woman in this country even today is not so easy.
Then to the singing! Wow! I can see why this show is already being booked for other international festivals. But let me come at this from another way. Most of you know I was born in Bougainville in 1955. My father was a humble medical officer in the small outstation of three European families at Buin – one admin, one agricultural and one medical – plus families. Plus a few nearby settlement of American missionaries, mostly nuns. Buin sits on the southern-most tip of Bougainville Island and from our house – if I could have seen over the the top of my cot – on a fine day I might have glimpsed the Solomon Islands. There were 300 steps from the road up to our front door which explains, my mother believed, why I was her only child to be be born on the date due.
I mention this because part of me has never felt white Australian, and I plan to write in some upcoming posts about growing up in PNG – and how think it might have shaped not only me but the way I see – and write about - art. What this means, as I said to Vicki Gordon on the phone today, is that I often feel spiritually parched. Most of the work I see never quite nourishes – until something like a show like this comes along. The first time it happened in a big way was my debut encounter with a performance of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Dance Company back in the early 1980s. Torres Strait is a long way from Bougainville, but my family moved around a fair bit and we spent two years each in Kerema and Daru in the PNG Gulf District. My mid-primary school years in towns which face Torres Strait from the north. It’s a just short boat trip from Daru in particular, and again on a clear day you can see over the invisible boarder to islands on the other side.
There I was enjoying a bit of Aboriginal music and dance, when out came small troupe to perform some song and dance from Torres Strait. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck and I could barely breathe. I knew these songs, I realised I had seen these dances when I was a little boy. Roughly the same anyway – certainly culturally connected. My heart started to race and I wanted to cry. For joy. Some little kid inside of me was jumping about.
And so again yesterday. It wasn’t quite the same epiphany – no ‘flashback’ per se. But, as I said to Vicki, I felt like I was lying on my side on lush grass and these beautiful women performers were pouring nectar into my ear – and it was running down into my soul. It was the integrity as much as the accomplishment, the gift for ‘healing’ these empowered women artists possess. I don’t believe you have to be autobiographically connected – I am pretty sure most people in the audience felt the same way. It’s to do with the preservation of centuries-old truths in the bodies of these women – what makes them Indigenous artists. And they remind us how ‘emptied out’ so much of our own culture has become.
Similarly evident in the bigger show I saw last night – I am Eora. But I will write about that tomorrow. The women who comprise The Barefoot Divas were all good though its impossible for any of us not to have favourites. I thought Merenia – of Maori, Welsh and Romany heritage – was pretty fantastic. And I promise it had nothing to do with her PNG origins, but Ngaiire (now an Australian resident) knocked my socks off. This young singer not only has a fine voice, and great delivery for someone I believe largely self-taught, but such depth and power. She doubles over the microphone and seemingly unearths her voice. Timeless yet as hip as anyone you’ve seen on Rage. I’ve never seen anything like it: the seemingly effortless transmigrations from intensity to grace. She has this pumping action which she works with her spare fist horizontal with her hips, which appears to work like a bellows. Very idiosyncratic yet not at all mannered – its her. It’s how this artist sings. It’s like watching the emergence of a new Nina Simone.