Two thousand people or more who gathered on the viewing stands and east lawn of the Ellipse at sunset yesterday had an experience that was something like traveling through time. The feeling was awesome. The phenomenon was clear and simple, but unlike anyhting that descends on Washinton every season under the label of folk troupe. Australia's Aboriginal Artists are, indeed, originals.
A sharp beat preceded them as the first group, a handful of men and women from northeast Arnhem Land (north-central Australia), came into the performing area. Their entrance was neither as formal as a march nor as casual as a walk, but a moving in line so basic that it contained the germs of both. The women were dressed in everyday blouses and skirts, but the men wore loinclothes. The looked exotic because there was a uniformity of a type of body -- square torso, thin limbs. A slightly stopped carriage accented their short necks. Startling, too, was the chalking of their dark hair and skin that made them seem ageless.
Movement was compact whether the particular dance called for an erect or bent posture, or for treading, stamping, stalking, hopping or a counterpoint of any two of these. Individuals were free not to do all of the steps, but those that were executed had to be rhytmically precise.
The people from Western Cape York (in the northeast part of the continent) wore feathers and rope skirts and spotted themselves discreetly with white pigment. Their backs tended to be stretched compared to those of the Arnhemlanders, narrative gestures seemed more playful but the dancing was almost playful with knee knocks and even a step like a polka.
From the desert there were big-bellied men and the biggest was the leader. Wearing bushy leaves around the ankles and sporting a few white patches of skin paint, they, too, began by setting a rhythm. Some of the dancing alternated stooping and straightening, but these tribesman also like to just sit in a tight circle facing in and clapping.
The music of Australia's aboriginal people, like their dances, is economical to the point of sounding dry by Western standards. None of the sharp voice calls, the clapping or the wooden percussion calls for embellishment. Even the richer trombone tone of the long hollow stempipe is used with imaginative precision rather than flamboyance. Yet, within the strict material and formal limits of these ceremonials, one senses the ideas of all the world's arts.
Today's performances will take place in Anacostia.