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theatre review

Gudirr Gudirr is a gripping hour-long exploration of the aboriginal people of northwest Australia and the region’s unique multiculturalism.Terry Murphy and Helen Fletcher-Kennedy

The multicultural cemeteries of the town of Broome, Western Australia, are filled with dead pearl divers. Many of the buried are indigenous people who were forced into the work as slaves in the late 19th century and the migrant workers who replaced them once slavery was abolished. In the early 20th century, Broome was exempt from Australia's white-only immigration policy so that the pearl industry could flourish.

This history forms some of the backdrop for Gudirr Gudirr, a one-woman dance-theatre piece performed, conceptualized and choreographed by Dalisa Pigram, co-artistic director of Australia's Marrugeku Theatre. Using video art designed by Vernon Ah Kee (and co-choreographed by Koen Augustijnen of Belgium's Les Ballets C de la B), the work is a gripping hour-long exploration of the aboriginal people of northwest Australia and the region's unique multiculturalism. Through movement, text, narrative and film, Pigram tells a multilayered story about how historical racism, persecution and violence have turned into contemporary racism, persecution and violence – compounded by the threat of cultural erasure and environmental devastation.

I can't overstate the impact and importance of this piece. In one sense, it's an urgent invective on how systemic oppression has left Australian aboriginal communities grappling with social and economic injustice. There are sequences of pure rage when, for example, Pigram considers teen suicide rates and how the wait for change feels never-ending. But the piece is also a celebration of the strange phenomenon of "identity" itself, framed through the lens of multiculturalism. A racist report from 1928 on mixed-marriages between aboriginals and Asian migrants is juxtaposed with a beautiful montage of the people of Broome. A series of young and old faces are projected over the stage, reifying the region's unique history. The people seem to be captured apolitically, too busy being themselves to be indignant.

But the piece's chief emotional power comes from Pigram's dancing. She's a strong, utterly convincing performer. Her movement draws on Malaysian martial arts (Silat), gymnastics and traditional motifs (her background is Asian-Indigenous). While there are hints of narration and characterization in the actual steps (at one point, Pigram becomes a disoriented youth; at another, she seems to be dancing in a nightclub), the choreography is most effective in its abstract ability to express feeling. Pigram has an innate, physical understanding of contrast and conflict. There are flourishes of the acrobatic – but Pigram might be most compelling in her minutiae. She finds drama in the delicate, birdlike isolations of her neck and the jointed details of her robotic arm chops.

The starkness of desert and sea are conjured through the use of sound and light. A long vertical net suspends from the rafters and is used to delineate the empty space. Oceanic projections bubble and crest in the background as Pigram climbs to the net's top, as though surfacing from a dangerous dive. All this happens to an alternately haunting and heartening score by Sam Serruys and Stephen Pigram.

Some of the narrative vignettes are stronger than others. I was gripped by a sequence that unravelled under the heading "the time is now," in which Pigram compares socio-economic problems and systemic persecution of the past and present. In another, a diatribe on injustice and life's meaninglessness turns into a hilarious (but poignant) outburst of uncontrollable swearing. I was a little less clear on the point of a satirical flight-attendant-style speech and had trouble decoding the relevance of some images on film. But even when clarity wavered a little, the emotional coherence was sustained.

Gudirr Gudirr has toured throughout Australia and Europe, but its presentation at World Stage marks its North American premiere. The piece's relevance to Canadian audiences is obvious – it's impossible to watch and not consider how slowly and ineffectively change and justice are being granted to our First Nations communities at home.