"We're proud of our culture -- but we also do live in the 1990s," said a smiling member of the Tjapukai Dance Theatre last night at the conclusion of the group's performance at Georgetown University's Gaston Hall.
These were the words of a representative of a people who -- like other Australian Aborigines -- can trace their ancestry back some 500 centuries. The sentence summed up the evening, which can only be called an experience in cultural vertigo. Moments before, the troupe's seven performers, their loincloth-clad figures speckled in the dots, streaks and patterns of traditional body paint, had stepped to three microphones to end their program with a rock-style ballad on the theme of universal brotherhood.
The all-male group, which hails from the rain forest village of Kuranda in Far North Queensland on the northeast coast of Australia, was appearing as part of a three-city (Chicago, New York, Washington) tour under the auspices of the Australian Tourist Commission and Qantas Airways.
It is one thing to see Aborigines performing their ancient music and dance in a setting like Anacostia Park -- as Washingtonians did in 1981, on the first Aboriginal tour of the United States -- or on the rocky promontory of Angel's Gate overlooking the Pacific Ocean, as I and many others did last month at the opening of the Los Angeles Festival.
It's quite another to see a troupe like the Tjapukai (pronounced "japu-guy" and meaning "people of the rain forest") against the mix of Gothic chapel and baronial chamber that is Gaston Hall, on a theatrically lit stage equipped with mikes and speakers, and then to have three of them -- in the middle of their folk drama -- break into a jazzy number accompanied by a taped combo, singing words that sounded like "We've got the low food blues," all the while encouraging the audience to clap on the off beats.
Part of the fundamental mission of Tjapukai, established in 1986, is to help preserve the arts of Kuranda against the inroads of non-Aborigines, and at the same time to acquaint other peoples with their special enchantment. Some of the contemporized aspects of the show may be ascribed to the direction by ex-Broadway director Don Freeman and his wife, Judy. The script and lyrics, though, are written by members of the the troupe. The result is -- to an outlander's eyes -- an odd juxtaposition of vital folk material and corrupting Western influences. Or is "corruption" a term that would only occur to a Westerner in this context? The question applies not only to the Aborigines; it's being hotly debated worldwide lately as the multicultural tide gathers momentum, and issues of authenticity and adulteration rise inevitably to the fore.
In any case, the Tjapukai program might be likened to the old Buffalo Bill Wild West shows one reads about in American theatrical history. It was part lecture-demonstration, part variety show and part danced folk tale.
The folk tale was a choreographic enactment of a story about a warrior, Woonan, who seeks vengeance against the devil spirit Gadja, one of whose minions, disguised as a kangaroo, had killed Woonan's brother. Between scenes, the performers demonstrated and explained the workings of the remarkable didgeridoo -- the Aborigines' hollowed-log wind instrument, with its piquantly nasal drone, odd harmonics and characteristic buzzings; the boomerang and other hunting and martial weaponry; a four-pronged fish spear; and a pair of fire sticks. The presentation was peppered with vaudeville-style spiel and gags.
Beside the haunting chants and didgeridoo playing (by troupe member David Hudson), the dances were among the most beguiling aspects of the program. They included vigorous dances of male prowess, done in a characteristic crouch and featuring wagging knees and powerfully rhythmic stamping, and several animal mimicry dances, drawing imagery from the movements of land and aquatic birds, and kangaroos. The entire 90-minute program will be repeated tonight.