Image: Darren Edwards and Catherine Young in Gary Lang’s MOKUY Credit: Glenn Campbell 2014.
Gary Lang NT Dance Company is a powerful connecting force in the Northern Territory, providing opportunities for artists and audiences to explore subject matter that resonates deeply within the community. Bringing together a unique blend of places, voices and cultures, Gary Lang’s latest work MOKUY, presented by Artback NT: Arts Development and Touring, is intensely personal. It is a universal expression of the tragedy of youth suicide and grieving, through reflection on the journey of the spirit following death.
The seed of the idea came after an eight year old and an eleven year old died in Arnhem Land, where choreographer Gary’s adopted and extended family live. Frustrated at their loss, Gary – a Larrakia man and the first Indigenous Australia Council Dance Fellow – found himself confronted with the persistent question: ‘How could those children get to that point of despair?’ The work started at this point as an expression of his grief and a dedication to those children.
Over time, the work developed to become a dedication to all who have passed, including Gary’s grandmother. Gary allowed some insight into how witnessing this moment affected the direction of MOKUY:
‘In her later years, my grandmother used to tell me:
“when the soul leaves the spirit world and is conceived to this world, the spirit world sheds tear of sadness. When the soul is born to this physical world, we shed tears of joy. Likewise, when the soul leaves this world, there are tears of sadness and when it steps back into the spirit world there are tears of joy…”’
Artistically, MOKUY continued its evolution through a process of conversations and learning. As part of the creative process, Gary has spent a lot of time telling stories to the dancers. Gary describes the first workshop as a ‘raw and emotional experience’ requiring a high level of physical and emotional investment from the creatives, which while taxing also offered the promise of catharsis. It was a lengthy process discovering the tone of the work: ‘After years of refining, a language has been found to represent the journey of the spirit, which strives to neither glorify it nor draw too directly upon physical responses. The choreography and feelings around the work have been distilled into a series of vignettes that unfold different aspects of the spirit’s journey until it finds its final resting place.’ Gary’s intention is that ‘this work does not glorify death, but is a dedication to those who have passed and is intended to be a healing to those who feel loss or grief. This work and these feelings touch all of us. The current work reflects a space that each of us has to navigate during our lives’.
As a part-time dance company, there is a sense of communal ownership of the work: artists make a personal commitment to maintain connections and attend classes between intense rehearsal periods. The current period of development and presentation is the result of many conversations and two workshops. Over the past three years the dancers have been a tirelessly dedicated force in their support, sharing Gary’s journey through the development. For its final creative period, MOKUY is also hosting Hans Ahwang, a student from NAISDA Dance College on secondment. His presence plays an integral role in the transmission of stories and artistic practice, as well as sharing the burden of grieving beyond the community. Indigenous choreographer Vicki Van Hout also recently had an opportunity to participate in classes, gaining personal insight into Gary’s unique choreographic style. Vicki’s experience is documented in her blog for FORM Projects.
In its final stage, MOKUY weaves together multiple cultural threads to form a unique movement and musical landscape. Musically, the structure is based on a traditional manikay (song cycle) used in ceremonies, blended with classical music to create a lyrical and moving soundtrack featuring traditional songmen and yidaki players. Drawing upon Yolgnu and Larrakia culture, Gary Lang has assembled a diverse indigenous and non-indigenous creative team. Based in regional and remote Northern Territory, they reflect the cultures of Darwin with Aboriginal, Filipino, Torres Straits Islander, African and Anglo heritage represented. Gary’s adopted mother Naminapu Maymuru-White – a respected Mangalili clan artist from Yirrkala, North East Arnhem Land has been cultural advisor on the project. Nami’s sons Jamie and Barry Wanambi are the Song men who sing for MOKUY.
This unique gathering of voices and cultures resonates with the local community, with audiences to Gary Lang’s work making up roughly 3% of the Darwin population. MOKUY will have opportunities to connect with audiences through a world premiere at Garrmalang Festival at Darwin Entertainment Centre on Friday 9 and Saturday 10 May 2014.
In the words of Nami, this is the work ‘that needed to happen.’
MOKUY is supported through Artback NT : Arts Development and Touring, the Australia Council for the Arts and the Darwin Entertainment Centre, where it will be presented in May for the Garmalang Festival.