It takes a special kind of artist to pull off solo dance theatre, and even more so where the show is autobiographical. Such pieces can often flip into self-indulgence or artistic obscurity (and sometimes both). Not so with Dalisa Pigram, the co-director of Marrugeku dance theatre. Her solo performance in Gudirr Gudirr, (co-choreographed with Belgian choreographer Koen Augustijnen) is a touching, tender, and powerfully-told story of her life as a mixed-heritage Indigenous woman from Broome, Australia’s famed pearling town on the northwest Kimberley coast.

© Heidrun Lohr
© Heidrun Lohr

We are introduced through multiple mediums to Pigram’s life. Visual and text projections (designed by Vernon Ah Kee), oral storytelling in English, Yawuru, and pidgin, aerial acrobatics, and dance fusing contemporary and Indigenous styles as well as Silat (Malay martial arts), are thoughtfully combined. Through all these mediums we are drawn into Pigram’s life, resplendent with joy, anger, sadness, and humour. And even though this is a one-woman show, it manages to be about so much more. Her stories, with their detailed intimacy and told from her unique standpoint, are deeply reflective and so embrace the greater struggles for Indigenous identity. Through her eyes we see childhood spear-fishing trips with her father, the effect of industrialisation on traditional lands, the loss of language and culture, youth violence, suicide, and social inequality. She is simultaneously everybody and yet herself, acting as a doorway into a wider landscape of immense historical richness and pain. It is clear that Pigram wants us to respond, as she has, and her stories are laced with a sense of urgency. The title, after all, takes its name from the call of the Guwayi bird, which cries a warning when the ocean tide is turning. “To miss the call”, Pigram says, “is to drown.”

The need for response is made clear in Gudirr Gudirr’s opening, a text projection of a historical 1928 government report. It chillingly recommends that Asiatic and Indigenous marriages are to be discouraged, but observes that any “half-caste” offspring could form a more effective means of domestic and sexual servitude befitting Broome’s growing economic status. The words are then replaced with beautiful portrait footage of individual members of Pigram’s multiracial community, until the lights swell to show Pigram herself dancing on stage. The juxtaposition could not be more stark.

Words, both written and spoken, are powerfully used. Text from Pigram’s monologues flash onto the backdrop as she speaks them, punctuating them into the audience psyche. And this – along with all the other spoken-word parts of Gudirr Gudirr – show Pigram’s incredible gift as a storyteller. She is frank, self-deprecating, and deeply compelling. She also has a clear talent for language, charming us with the childhood chatter of her fishing trip story, the pidgin of her swear-word rant, the searing symmetrical poetry of “the time is now” monologue which contrasts past and current Indigenous issues, and the eloquence of a witty flight-safety spoof.

© Heidrun Lohr
© Heidrun Lohr

Pigram is also an effortless physical presence. The dancing in Gudirr Gudirr shows her impressive strength, as she scales up a 4 metre-high fishing net, only to swing on it across the stage before plunging down it to the ground – upside down and head first. Her masterful body control, focus, and sense of timing is displayed in the choreography, which makes constant use of muscle isolation. Given Pigram’s strength, therefore, I felt that the choreography seemed unchallenging compared to what she could have done. There were a few thrilling moments where she threw herself in dives across the stage, and these seemed a tantalising glimpse of what could have been achieved choreographically. As it was, I felt the choreography fell short of the freshness and meticulously-crafted culmination of Pigram's wonderful storytelling. It was the words of Gudirr Gudirr, and not the dancing, that remained with me after the stage lights dimmed.

But maybe this was the point. After all, Gudirr Gudirr is a work that defies categorisation, much like Pigram herself. This made it a difficult piece to review. Dance aside, for the depth and integrity of the message I would have given it five stars, and as a piece of theatre I would have easily given it four stars. But one cannot overlook that Gudirr Gudirr professes to be dance theatre first and foremost, and that dance takes up most of its 55 minute length. I note that this is not the first time Gudirr Gudirr has been performed. The success of its 2013 première was followed by repeat performances across Australia and internationally (of which this was one). If there are further productions – and I sincerely hope there are – I would love to see Gudirr Gudirr extended into a form where the choreography becomes just as dramatic and unforgettable as its storytelling.