SHORE (Narrm): Performance
By Jacqueline Shea Murphy
May 15, 2017
This is the fourth place in which I’ve been part of SHORE. I wrote a blog essay about SHORE in Minneapolis in 2014, which was its premiere and the first time I’d seen it. The piece and the place (Minneapolis) were all new to me then. I followed SHORE to Lenapehoking, New York City, which is where I was born and where my father was killed, and where I consider home, even though really I’ve hardly lived there except during University. During the SHORE: Performance there, I felt connected in a spectral kind of way to the lower Manhattan streets we walked through, and to the familiarity and buzz of the New York arts world (Bill T. Jones was in the lobby when I passed into the theater; it was a scene, exciting). I was more deeply part of SHORE in Yelamu – San Francisco – a region I’ve walked and danced and lived in for nearly three decades, and where I helped make connections that brought Indigenous elders and youngsters onto the SHORE dance stage, and SHORE: STORY and FEAST and a final PERFORMANCE out to Indigenous dance gatherings. And now here I am in Narrm, which I’ve learned is the Wurundjeri word (Wurundjeri are the Indigenous people of the land on which ArtHouse, where part of SHORE: Performance, will happen, is situated in relation to the river) for that part of Melbourne, Australia, which is a very far way from any place I’ve called home, and possibly the last place SHORE will happen (its possible it will be remounted, someday, but it's a big endeavor, and so far nothing has been scheduled, Emily tells me.) I missed SHORE in Seattle, and Alaska, regretfully. It’s been a journey.
Some things are different here at SHORE: Performance in Narrm: we don’t get nametags (perhaps to save paper?); or a survey tucked in an envelope, to complete four days after we see the piece. It is late autumn here in June, so we start in the dark (it was twilight in Lenapehoking, but not pitch dark like here). We head to a corner we’ve been told is the place to start, and are given flashlights (which double as our tickets) and head up into Royal Park where there is a majestic and giant tree that has been half illuminated for the show. It is stunning against the night sky, just luminous. As we gather together (near a “Gather Here” sign framed in light bulbs) the cast stands around its giant trunk wearing light-bladders hanging around their necks (they are plastic rectangular pockets bulging with light; I think of them as light bladders). Emily stands on her pedestal and tells her tree-hawk-eagle dream story, and points to a tree, down a ways, and about the sense she had that she was that tree, and was herself, at the same moment. Her stories, the dark, the moonlit sky, this shimmering half-lit setting, tune our attentions to layers of connection and of distance: to our rustlings here on earth, to the tree and bird beings around us, to other worlds: the stars, realms of being and consciousness on multiple scales. Alert to these layers and sensing the shifting spaces between them, we walk a long way to the theater, together, through the streets, in silence, the sounds of our feet crunching. “What’s it for? What’s it for?” a group of people shouts to us as we walk. No one answers. On another corner, a woman laughs to her friend as we pass by, “I told you it was Art!”
The theater we arrive at is a large one, though not as large as the one in Minneapolis. And the cast is different too -- not just the “Choir” cast, which is always different, and always in relation to the place in which SHORE is taking place, but the core cast too. Aretha and Krista are gone. And yet, they are not fully gone: I see flashing of them in the two new dancers, like when Krista’s claw-like hands appear on one of the new dancers, the young woman with a ponytail just for an instant. And Aretha’s stick-on mustache is gone from the stage, too, though I wonder if the way it signaled the playful way things aren’t always what they first appear, and its gender-indeterminacy, might have been transposed to the other new dancer, who is tall, short hair, and whose gender at first is hard to tell. Emily’s fuller dancing presence is also different. I think she is doing much of Aretha’s role as well as her own: the handstands, the virtuosic leg kicks, the quirky seeming-random-not-random basketball movement. The playful part with the cloth on the head is gone. Most strikingly, there is a more present anger: Emily’s legs slam down with force, we hear her breath, her guttural outcries, the sounds and effort and rage of her fuller embodiedness.
Mostly what feels different is experiencing the work as it is ensconced within Yirramboi First Nations Arts Festival, a festival of First Nations art that is taking place in Melbourne, and which SHORE is part of. Here, SHORE is one small part of a twelve-day festival of Indigenous dance and other arts. It is presented and marketed not just as a contemporary performance work, but also in explicit relation to Indigenous artistic and political histories. At a satellite forum I attend the day SHORE: Performance opens, Merindah Donnelly, Executive Producer for BlakDance (the central organization for Indigenous dance in Australia) speaks about how only two percent of Arts presenting in Australia is Indigenous, and “how that’s not good enough.”[i] And of course this needs addressing. Yet Donnelly also notes that there are over 100 Indigenous choreographers, over 200 Indigenous community dance groups, and 100,000 Indigenous cultural dance groups in Australia. From a U.S. perspective, being part of twelve days of the Yirramboi festival, which began with both a Closed Protocol Ceremony (for Indigenous only) and an opening spectacular Welcome to Country (and night-club-esque dance party to drag hip hop), open to all, where every speaker and performance (it seems) begins by stating they wish to acknowledge “the traditional land upon which we are located, of the Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin nation, and pay our respect to Elders both past and present and, through them, to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people” (as the ArtsHouse SHORE Program states), this feels also like resilience and abundance. One night of the festival, there are five Indigenous dance performances, as well as SHORE: Story, all happening. And that’s just one night.
How, I wonder as I watch, does SHORE read within this so-much-more-strongly-stated Indigenous and Indigenous dance context than it was in Lenapehoking (New York), where participants I talked with didn’t know of Emily’s Yup’ik family background? Or in Yelamu (San Francisco), where a connection to local Indigenous peoples and land was part of the piece, but not always at the forefront of the framing and publicity around it?
This time, watching, I still read the choreography of SHORE: Performance as articulating a flickering slipstream presence between worlds in which an Indigenous connection is there, but isn’t always seen or heard clearly. The dropped red fabric and panels depicting drying salmon in front of Emily’s aunt’s Que’ana bar are, again, there for a flash, just minutes, then drawn away. Those of us watching have a chance to register this and feel its resonance, but just barely, before it’s gone. I still read in SHORE: Performance a yearning for Indigenous knowledge and connection (to whales, to trees, to other-than-human /once-were-human relations) that is there, and that Emily is trying hard to access and communicate to us, but that keeps getting drowned out by so many other voices.
This time, here in Narrm, in the midst of Yirammboi, I also feel Emily Johnson’s SHORE: Performance as specifically coming from the territory that is today called the United States, and its political history. Here, SHORE feels to me not (only) Indigenous in a broad sense that connects peoples around the globe similarly affected by British/European colonization, but also Indigenous in a specifically U.S. way. I feel this in its enactment of an Indigenous presence sheathed in deep obscurity even as it is clearly there, and in its mix of yearning and anger.
SHORE, I’ve heard and seen along its voyages and restagings, is about what Indigenous ways of being continue, or transpose into other places, other bodies, as experienced in the places Emily has come from, and is at. It is about what gets left behind – in time, in space -- and what spectral traces of those remains are there before us, if only visible in flashes. I’ve sensed in it the liminal space between realms: like the sparkling edge between land and water that birds traverse (Emily and the song leader and the core cast dancers wear red make up across their eyes, like masks, that make them look to me a bit like birds), a liminal shore space of potency, and activation. Is SHORE, maybe, about the spaces it crosses? I find myself thinking about the ‘broken songlines’ I’ve heard talk of in various Yirramboi discussions. I think about SHORE: Narrm not as a songline, which is specific to this Country, but in a related way: as an embodied voicing of Indigenous stories that cross, and also don’t cross, from territory to territory, shore to shore, with attention to the trauma, and import, of those emergings, groundings, voyages, stoppings, and carryings on. I think about the way SHORE carries the residues and energies of major U.S. metropolises: Minneapolis, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and their contemporary dance scenes, as well as of Emily’s home in Alaska. And in the ways it both does, and doesn’t, carry these stories clearly here to Melbourne.
SHORE: Narrm is steeped in all of the Indigenous discussion surrounding it this week of Yirramboi. I’m guessing everyone in this audience knows of Emily’s Yupik family heritage, and is curious about the work (which seems to me this time quiet like a poem -- suggestive and surreal, strange and compelling, in a “this-would-read-in-New York” kind of way) and how it relates to Yirramboi. This is how I read it in Narrm: it is a slipstream vision of Turtle Island Indigeneity vibrating with Indigenous presence while tuned also to experiences of pervasive Indigenous absence, and with the multiple layers of what living this absence/presence is like for U.S. based choreographer Emily Johnson living in spaces of what today is called the USA. It seems, here, to me, watching this time, so very American in this, and also so very Emily, in the ways Emily’s Yup’ik self is at its very core, central, constitutive, but also muffled, so that you might leave scratching your head, wondering if you saw her, or it, or what. The context of this surrounding situation (this Yirramboi festival in Melbourne, the recognition that people in other colonized lands pay to Indigenous peoples and territories) registers and amplifies its flickerings – and also brings out the parts of it that are distant, rooted elsewhere, the story that doesn’t quite cross over but reflects its groundings and histories elsewhere.
A number of times throughout Yirramboi, I hear Indigenous people say: we have been here thousands of year -- 60,000 years, at a minimum.[ii] We survived the Ice Age. We have deadly tools for survival. Two hundred years of colonization? That’s nothing compared to the skills we have. I think about SHORE as Emily’s offering, from the Indigenous lands of today-called-America, put forward as cultural exchange on the traditional land of the Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin nation, on Indigenous lands of today-called-Australia, with its millennia of Indigenous resilience and practices of ongoing sustainability (practices that, several speakers note, include recognizing the power in art, song, dance, performance). This is Emily’s story, her song, her danced contribution to this global gathering and its conversations: it is the story she brings, and offers. I think about SHORE within this festival’s context of tremendous loss—many of the voices I hear and performance pieces I see throughout the week speak of loss, violence, trauma in the context of ongoing British settler colonization of these territories (only 2 % of programming in Indigenous, as Donnelly notes). And I think about SHORE within this festival’s simultaneous performance of abundance, including all these inspiring elders and youngsters, and the abundant possibility that Indigenous resilience, intelligence, and creativity yields (100 Indigenous Australian choreographers!)
I think about the way it enables attention to the ongoing presence of entities we see and don’t see – birds, streams, family members who have passed on – and to ways of being and knowing, seemingly absent but there still, transformed, in the stories and trees and landscapes and sparkling streets around us.
SHORE in Narrm makes me step back, take a breath, consider where I’m from, consider where I’m standing now, prepare. “Gather, we have gathered, and for now we’re here,” the performance closes. What does it mean to gather? To recognize who and where you’ve come from, who you are with, where you are? To be attentive to the multiplicities around you? To be alert, and prepared? On the pedestal under the tree, before she asks us to help her down and to walk together in silence to the theater, Emily says: “I’ve been trying to think of the most joyous moment in my life. I’m not sure what it is. But I’m ready.” SHORE (Narrm) Performance is an experience of being attentive, alert, watchful, balancing with an open heart on that teetering space between confused and curious, with deep awareness of where you came from, the territory you’ve traversed since then, the Country on which you’re standing now, and all you do and don’t perceive about the spaces and beings and entities around you, and the joy this attentive experience can (and will, it is coming) bring. It’s about listening, watching, acknowledging. And being ready.
[i] The link to this research is here http://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/research/showcasing-creativity-programming-and-presenting-first-nations-performing-arts/
[ii] General knowledge is 60,000 years although recent carbon dating suggests 100,000 years.