Led by Thomas ES Kelly (Minjungbal-Yugambeh, Wiradjuri and Ni-Vanuatu) and Taree Sansbury (Kaurna, Narrunga and Ngarrindjeri), Karul Projects has established itself as a major player in contemporary Australian dance-theater. Weredingo, their most recent work, is a highlight of the Brisbane Festival; thoughtful, provocative, playful and totally engaging. Weredingo is about shape shifting – a form of metamorphism in First Nations dream stories. On a personal level, it is also about dual identities and transformation.
The premise of the work involves the audience on arrival, where animal attendance and affiliation is noted by the reassuring barefoot Frank who draws us into a “metamorphosed accompanying reunion.”
As the auditorium darkens, we feel the silent and towering presence of a giant wedge-tailed eagle gazing intently from above. The eagle comes in and out Weredingo as a presence live and on screen: timeless and premonitory, observer and protector. On the dimly lit stage, a mysterious hooded creature crouches, rolls, growls and leaps before disappearing.
The menacing mood created by this animal / human is interrupted by the bright lights of the boardroom and the upbeat reappearance of self-proclaimed meeting host Frank. Speaking directly to the meeting, he reassures attendees that we are in a safe space, as we repeat after him the support group’s mantra of Commitment to Respect All Animals. Frank states that everyone present is shapeshifter and the reunion officially begins after the arrival of Colton (Thomas ES Kelly) and Virgil (Benjin Maza).
What follows is an extraordinary theatrical metamorphosis experience. Weredingo invites the support group to share in the unfolding journey of Virgil, Colton and the angry latecomer Denise (Taree Sansbury). One by one, these shape-shifters reveal their duality, transmuting between human and animal through three haunting and unique solos.
Virgil, describing himself as a ‘late’ shapeshifter, begins with a humorous piece of misunderstood communication around the denomination that continues with a delightful narration of his place and family as he physically transforms through an original dance. but organic with boneless fluidity to slip into his character of a green ant. His irrepressible spirit throughout the work provides a humorous antidote to the dark struggles faced by other shape-shifters.
Read: Theater critic: Ismaël, Brisbane Festival
It quickly becomes apparent that Colton is the true host of the reunion and an experienced shapeshifter – his triangular-tailed eagle metamorphosis is towering and charismatic, and he inhabit other creatures with ease and familiarity. Colton continues to take us on a fascinating cultural lesson in creationist stories through dance and poetry, accompanied by enchanting animated illustrations of various animals and their metamorphosis across the landscape. The apparent simplicity of this section nonetheless reveals a multi-faceted layering of contemporary relevance, a hallmark of Karul’s work. Weredingo is a highly successful example of the company’s vision to “strengthen and empower the cultural knowledge of this land so that future generations of all backgrounds can continue to learn and enjoy Australia’s rich Aboriginal heritage”.
Despite the skillful use of humor, Weredingo doesn’t hesitate to portray harsh truths, exemplified in Denise’s heartbreaking metamorphosis solo. A guttural and visceral metamorphosis draws us into his world of pain, both relatable and alienating. Danced with fury and abandonment, from the menacing crouch to the tortured and full-bodied howl, this human animal is trapped in the trauma and violence of its transition. It’s a frightening hypnotic dance, its struggle augmented by multiple changing images from the three screens.
Denise’s change of form is the turning point of the work, after which the premises and promises of the earlier scenes are removed. Inclusion breeds exclusion and exclusion breeds inclusion as the final stages of the group meeting unfold. Frank (portrayed with nuance and skill by Grayson Millwood) is no longer tolerated as a well-meaning empathetic “facilitator” with his naive chatter and self-effacing ways. Increasingly marginalized, Frank is forced to confront his own painful truth, which culminates in a dramatic altercation. As an alien, he experiences the harsh and terrifying reality of being treated like a hunted wild animal. This confrontational incident awakens a deep and unequivocal awareness – not everyone is or may not be a shapeshifter. Weredingo is undeniably a powerful revealer of the truth.
Despite the changing moods and scenes of the work, it has a coherent internal structure. The setting is simple, with tea and bicycles on a table in one corner and three screens evenly spaced against the black background. Enveloping clouds, starry skies, and expressive line-drawn animation by Studio Hackett’s Jake Duczynski with projections from Wirrim Studios are essential to the storytelling. This is reinforced by Chloe Ogilvie’s lighting design, transporting the viewer, both literally and figuratively, from the dark worlds of the shape shift to the bright environments of the group’s support reunion. Likewise, Sam Pankhurst’s soundscape reflects and augments the fluctuating ambiances that permeate the work. Above all, the sensitive integration of these elements never overwhelms the performers whose stories remain central.
Kelly developed a concise choreographic language of symbolic hand gestures and expansive arm movements, combined with a strong rhythmic unison movement through varied footstep patterns, and an undulating fluidity of the upper body punctuated by sudden stillness. ; that create a powerful energy that is palpably anchored in Indigenous culture, especially when accompanied by chanting in the language. In Weredingo, the idiosyncratic individual styles of the three shapeshifters extend this language in surprising and haunting ways. Group dances, intermittent throughout the work, would however benefit from being explored further.
The accompanying text goes from the mundane in Frank to the clear and poetic speech in Colton, the endearing humor in Virgil and the raw and provocative anger in Denise. These different verbal styles are sometimes direct and confrontational, sometimes subtle and poignant. As a critical line, the text could be strengthened by refinement and editing. In the final confrontation, for example, the physical performance tells the story more forcefully than the monologue that follows.
Throughout the work, the cohesion and confidence between the performers is palpable as well as their ability to communicate complex concepts and feelings. Their generosity, as well as the work’s inclusive audience structure, engenders a shared experience even though the deeper layers invite personal and individual understanding of the change of form.
Karul has come to represent a sophisticated new generation of indigenous dance-based storytellers, whose bold presence and playful, yet highly relevant productions add significantly to the changing shape of the Australian performing arts landscape. Weredingo is a fascinating and powerful work which deserves, when possible, national and international exposure.
Weredingo, Karul Projects
New Benner Theater, Metro Arts, Brisbane
Director / choreographer / performer: Thomas ES Kelly
Rehearsal director / performer: Crazy Sansbury
Performers: Benjin Maza and Grayson Millwood
Costume designer: Selene Cochrane
Sound designer: Sam pankhurst
Lighting designer: Chloé Ogilvie
Playwright: Isaac drandic
Animation: Studio Hackett
Videography: Wirrim’s studio
Weredingo was performed from September 3-11, 2021 as part of the Brisbane Festival.