"Will you please turn off the air conditioning?" asked a voice halfway down the bus. It was an ordinary Metrobus, chartered for the occasion and driving from the Australian Embassy down to Market Square. With the temperature in the 80s, most Washingtonians boarding a Metrobus would hope for air conditioning.
But this bus was different; half the people in it were wearing paint and not much else.
On the bus were 28 Australian aboriginal dancers, musicians, artists, craftsmen and painters, accompanied by various Australian officials on the first American tour ever made by such a group. The dancers (the ones clad mostly in paint) were headed for a lunch-hour performance in the park -- "sort of a teaser" as producer Spider Kedelsky told the impromptu audience that stood in a large circle watching the dancers brandish spears, clap sticks together, stamp feet, sing and pantomime the people and animals in folk tales that date back thousands of years. The major performances of the group, free of charge, will be tonight at 7:30 on the Ellipse and tomorrow from 2 to 5 p.m. in Anacostia Park.
While this is their first visit to the United States, their styles and techniques are not entirely unfamiliar in the dance world. Kedelsky, a choreographer himself, said he has been fascinated by the aborigines since he first encountered them, "and I'm not alone; Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor are also fascinated." Jiri Kylian, director of the Netherlands Dance Theater, which is performing this week at Wolf Trap, is creating a new work based on aboriginal dancing, and members of his company are expected to catch some of the aboriginals' performances while both groups are in Washington.
Some of the aborigines -- those who were wearing Western-style clothing -- blended easily into yesterday's Market Square crowd, which began growing as passers-by drifted over to sit down on the grass and wait for something unusual to happen. It happened, but the wait was a long one; aboriginal touring companies have the same kind of trouble with outdoor sound systems as do rock groups and political rallies. Whiel they waited, Nandjiwarra Amagula, president of The Aboriginal Cultural Foundation, Maurice Jupumula Luther, elder of the Walpiri tribe, artists Charlie Tjupagati and Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri and others strolled over to the excavation for a subway station in the square and conversed casually, glancing down into the deep, concrete-lined pit as though subway construction were a part of their everyday lives. Maurice Luther was born around 1946 (exact dates are not a salient element in aboriginal culture) in the desert northwest of Alice Springs. He did not see a white man until he was 10 years old, when his parents took him on a trip for that purpose. Since then, he says, "I have learned Western ways so that I can be a tool to keep our culture strong."
Inside the bus, the dancers -- who would not blend in with a Washington lunch-hour street crowd, being painted with white dots (if they came from the places around Aurukun) or red and blue stripes (if their home territory was around Yirrkala) -- revved up for their performance with soft drinks. Some asked for Coca-Cola (which is called "Coca in the approximately 200 aboriginal languages), while others asked for 7-Up (which is called "lemonade"). On such fuel they were preparing to perform ritual dances in which they portray the spirits of the dead digging for yams, a pair of mythical young lovers drowning together in a torrent, or legendary heroes with wings like birds. There are no work songs in the traditional aborigine repertoire; such songs begin with farming, and these people are hunters and gatherers who do not work in the modern sense of the word.
The culture shock of the afternoon reached some sort of climax when Clive Karwoppa Yunkaporta, leader of the Aaplatj ceremonial groups, took out his fire stick, set it down with some tinder on top of a boomerang, twirled the stick until a fire started and then gave the fire to a member of the audience to light his cigarette. "I hope the surgeon general's office isn't too close," said master of ceremonies Kedelsky. Quite a few of the aborgines also smoke -- filter tips, naturally -- and they seemed perfectly familiar with modern gadgetry in general. Yunkaprota is worried that the young people of his territory seems unwilling to do the hard work necessary to master the old skills and rituals. They prefer, he complains, "to learn all that American-style country and western music from cassette tapes."
There are approximately 40,000 full-blooded Australian aborigines still living in tribal societies, continuing a culture that has been dated back, by the carbon-14 method, at least 40,000 years. Nobody knows exactly how many more have become assimilated into Australian culture, but educated guesses range from about 150,000 to 200,000. The ones who remain loyal to tribal traditions are assisted by The Aboriginal Cultural Foundation, which organized the aborigines" five-city tour of the United States in cooperation with the Orinoco Dance Foundation of Los Angeles and with funding from the Australian government, the National Endownment for the Arts and Mobil Oil. The Aboriginal Cultural Foundation has two white staff workers, director Lance Bennett and Executive officer Barbara Spencer, "but we are the bosses," says president Amagula.
Three groups from widely scattered parts of Australia, all chosen by their tribal councils, are making the American tour. Their members can communicate with people from other tribes only in English, but aided by the Aboriginal Foundation they have come to recognize common interests and have even become a political power in one part of Australia. "In the Northern Territory," says Anthony Wallis of the Aboriginal Artists Agency, "they are 25 percent of the population and can vote." In fact, they have to vote; voting is mandatory in Australia, there are no literacy requirements or other restrictions in the Northern Territory, and elections are administered by a rigorously nonpolitical government agency that goes out of its way to get everybody's vote. Mobile polls are flown into remote aboriginal territories by helicopter.
"They have used their vote largely against developments that they consider destructive of their way of life," according to Wallis. "They don't vote for or against parties, but people -- and they are just the sort of swing voters who must really worry some politicans. They are using their tribal community as a political organization, beginning to see their own power and starting something that is quite new politically."