Interview: Dalisa Pigram from Marrugeku

Posted by Morgan Leek, May 31st, 2012

As a founding member and co-artistic director of intercultural dance theatre company Marrugeku, choreographer Dalisa Pigram creates works that seeks to build upon the traditions and memories of indigenous culture through contemporary performance.

Performing Lines WA producer Fiona de Garis recently caught up with Dalisa to discuss the recent USA and Canada tour of Buru and her plans for the future.

Words: Dalisa Pigram (DP), Fiona de Garis (FG)
Rod Hartvigsen

FG. You grew up in a very creative family, how did you come to ground your own artistic practice in dance and what is it that excites you about this artform?
DP. My family are very musical and we all have been exposed to different kinds of music from a very early age, kids falling asleep around camp fires at family gatherings aren’t as common as they used to be but are embedded in my memories. I think music opens your mind and switches on the creative buttons inside you if you let it and I guess with an appreciation for music in the family and an interest in dance and gymnastics has always led me to think of what possibilities I could create. I wasn’t sure that my interests were always totally focused on one thing like ‘just dance’ or ‘just music’. I think what excites me is working with other artists from different movement disciplines to create dance that can tell stories in the hope to allow the audience members to feel something even if they don’t fully understand what they are witnessing.

FG. When did you progress from being a performer to also choreographing work for the company? How have you trained in choreography?
DP. Marrugeku work in a co-divisive and  collaborative way since its beginnings and I guess I have always played a part in creating the choreography for each piece I have performed in. When we made Burning Daylight I worked as assistant Choreographer with Serge Amie Coulibaly in creating the movement style for the piece but still in a co-divisive process where each performer brought their own skills and developed their own movement vocabulary to build material for specific scenes. As Choreographers we then had the responsibility of shaping the movements sequences to tell the story. My choreographic processes have developed over the years from working with different artists from different disciplines and then with the creative team to explore concepts that our shows are built around. My experience or training has been a very ‘hands on’ approach of learning as much as I can from those artists around me of who I have had the privilege to work with creatively on the different projects and to adapt some of the methods they use into my own style of processing ideas through a movement base to develop my own choreographic ideas.

FG. What is your process for creating movement?
DP. I draw from the movement disciplines I have in my body while responding to improvisational creative practices that Marrugeku work with to make and build material. As my own story is influenced by many things, my movement language is influenced by practices like Malaysian martial arts (Silat), gymnastics, memories of traditional movements and a focus of observing animal movements and behaviours – all these inform my contemporary style of moving.

FG. I know all Marrugeku’s productions tell local stories. Why did you choose these particular stories for Buru and who made the decision?
DP. Our general practice has been to always consult with the elders of the community and to ask what they think is important stories to tell at this time. When we are creating ideas for a work we sit and talk with elders from the community in which we are working and then listen well to what they tell us and then try to respond to their thoughts with what we create. We are also culturally guided by the appropriate people in the right directions at every stage of development ensuring we show respect for the stories we then gain permission to explore in a creative way. This process takes time and builds genuine relationships in the community sometimes bridging the older and younger generations so that the community really benefit from our process. The stories explored in Buru were suggested by myself while working on the original concepts with co artistic director Rachael Swain after deciding to structure the show Buru around the six Yawuru seasons. The actual traditional stories were considered in response to thinking of how we could help to keep traditional stories alive and to inform or educate audience members of these stories that are connected to our beautiful Yawuru country and culture. With careful consultation with our elders the ‘Janyju’ Red Lizard story as shared by Doris Edgar (Karajarri elder and Yawuru language specialist) and ‘Walmanyjun  the Greedy Turtle story as told to us by elder Cissy Djiagween (Yawuru/Jabirr Jabirr elder) we gained permission to explore. In the retelling of these stories in our contemporary form we then invite the elders and Yawuru  community to view our work in progress after each development stage to then gain final approval from our elders to portray the chosen stories. We also chose to acknowledge the two custodial Boss Lizard figures, as shared with Marrugeku by senior Yawuru law man Patrick Dodson after many discussions with him about what was important to tell at this time for our people. What the boss lizards offered was perfect to explore not only on stilts visually responding to their descriptions but to promote respect for our Yawuru culture and country through these custodial figures eyes inspiring the narrations told throughout the show from the point of view of the land.

FG. Buru features nine young people from Broome. How easy was it to find performers with the necessary dance and stilt skills and how long was the rehearsal period?
DP. Buru has been a four year process and for the first 2 years we held stilt workshops with a larger group of around 15 Broome kids who I invited for a mix of reasons, some I invited as they already had basic stilt skills and performance interests and I thought the workshops alone would enhance their stilt skills and vocabulary but most of the young people I invited to give them an opportunity to explore something totally new and different to anything they would have ever taken part of before. So over the 2 years of building stilt skills in an around the school holiday periods we could then see the potential and genuine interest in the kids who wanted more. Some of the kids moved on to other interests as it was a flexible process and a lot of them were teenagers at the stage of life that they are refining their interests for adulthood and for after school but we ended up with 9 of them who were committed to the idea of making a professional performance piece and so began the process of making Buru. We didn’t want to take time away from the younger ones schooling so we continued to organised creative development rehearsals in and around the school holidays. We worked from a treatment that myself and Rachael developed in between times so that we could maximise our rehearsal times on the floor with the performers and other creative departments (music, media, costume etc) when we were all together.  I think if you added all the actual weeks of rehearsal periods with the performers it only amounts to 6 weeks in total.

FG. Taking Buru to North America must have been a big adventure for everyone. What was the highlight for you?
DP. It was a great adventure with many rewards. My personal highlight of the tour was attending the Pow Wow in Winnipeg and participating in the ‘grand entry’ section of the ceremony. To be part of a cultural practice on that large scale with the young people from Broome and watching their responses was particularly special. There was the strong beat of traditional drums with the voices of young and old through out the stadium singing with dances dressed in their traditional clothing dancing to the beat in a trance of movement. We were there witnessing it all. It was really something that I will never forget.  Also the opportunity to take part in and facilitate 2 days of cultural exchange in each place with the local people and young participants was especially rewarding. To share our cultures and stories and to see our young people stepping up and acting as ambassadors for our town and Australia and proudly representing themselves and Yawuru culture made me feel so proud.

FG. How did audiences over there react to the work? Do you think they understood it differently from Australians?
DP. I think the audiences responded generously and that their understanding of the piece was good considering they had know idea of where Broome was and with only very little knowledge of Aboriginal culture in Australia. At the beginning of each show we decided to give the audiences an insight into where we come from, our cultural situation, our inspirations for the show and we introduced the set elements to them as they would never have guessed what strange things they were looking at. The giant seed pods and Magabala fruit, the tall over sized mangrove tree seeds, the projection screen in the shape of a piece of the turtle breast plate bone and even the bus stop shelter were very foreign objects to them. We also had Brandon McCarthy (19 yr old performer) open the show with me speaking from his perspective of what it meant to have these traditional stories shared by our elders to the performers and then how he felt as a younger man from the community to keep these stories strong to ensure their survival. We also introduced all the performers to the audience and had a Q and A session after each performance right there on the stage to give audience members a chance to ask more about the show which was very beneficial to the understanding of the whole piece and process.  We even had them learning the names of our six Yawuru seasons in a response to the questioned posed “What are our seasons names”

FG. What did you learn as an artist from the Buru tour?
DP. When you take the time to make a show like Buru that represents the people you come from, the Yawuru people of Broome, and you take it to a place where nobody knows who you are or where you are from and you share these stories with others, we get stronger culturally and they do too. To hear these stories from our elders is very special as they are sharing their own Bugarri (dream) from Bugarrigarra (the dreaming time) and then to be allowed to translate them into our art form and then take them to places near and far to share them with others and keep them strong feels like we are helping in a practical way in the survival of our culture.


FG. What is next for Marrugeku and for Dalisa Pigram as a choreographer?
DP. I am working on a solo piece next with Marrugeku called Gudirr-Gudirr. The initial concept came from my grandfather Patrick Dodson who has played a cultural consultant with the company for many years. He spoke about this bird Gudirr-Gudirr or Guwayi (its proper Yawuru name) which is a small shore bird that calls out to tell you or warn you when the tide is about to turn. He said that he felt that I reminded him of this bird and its function of warning the tide is about to turn. He related this bird to the work I do in my own community and school keeping language alive but also with how we from Marrugeku have been concentrating on finding sustainable new ways of storytelling that ensures our culture survives always through these modern times. I will take this idea as a starting point and explore a series of animals which function as omens or warnings to the community drawing from my mixed heritage background of Malay, Pilipino and Indigenous Australian cultures.

As Co conceiver/Dancer and Co Choregrapher of this particular piece I will not only be given the chance to take inspiration utilising the dance and theatre forms I have developed as an artist working with Marrugeku but also the chance to collaborate with Belgium based director Koen Augustijnen whom I’ve worked with before. I feel I will develop my choreographic experience and enhance my art form and understandings of dance from a broader spectrum through Koen’s choreographic and creative processes. This collaboration has grown from a long term commitment by the Marrugeku Company to develop new possibilities for contemporary Indigenous dance and theatre artists in Australia. By working with leading international choreographers and directors like Koen Augustijnen, I feel that Gudirr-Gudirr and its creative team can offer ways of furthering the opportunities for contemporary Indigenous performance practice in Australia.

I start work in July in Broome with Koen and will premiere the piece at Dance Massive in Melbourne in March next year followed by its Broome premiere at Shinju Matsuri in  September 2013.

Other than all of this I will continue to work at Cable Beach Primary School teaching Yawuru language to students there and enjoy time watching my three children grow.

Dalisa Pilgram
Dalisa was born and raised in Broome, northwestern Australia. Her family is part of the Yawuru people of Broome and Bardi people of One Arm Point. Dalisa is a founding member and recently appointed Co Artistic Director of the Marrugeku Company, with which she has toured to the Netherlands, The Philippines, New Caledonia, Latin America, Ireland, Belgium, Germany, Zurich and all over Australia with shows Mimi, Crying Baby and latest piece Burning Daylight. Dalisa has also toured with Stalker Theatre Company’s Blood Vessel in Australia and overseas and was a co-devisor and performer in Stalker’s Incognita which also toured extensively. Dalisa hopes to help keep her culture alive and strong through performing arts and teaching.