The Djuki Mala dance troupe (also known as the Chooky dancers) was born in 2007 when Frank Djirrimbilpilwuy uploaded this video to YouTube, showing the boys of Elcho Island dancing to an up-tempo electronic version of Zorba the Greek. That video went viral and the troupe have been performing around the world ever since, reinterpreting popular culture according to Yolngu dance tradition. Djuki Mala are performing in Perth as part of 2019’s Fringe World festival, with shows at the West Australian spiegeltent through to February 17. I was lucky enough to attend the opening night, and as a non-Indigenous audience member, I was in for some fascinating cultural exposure as well as a lively show.
The Djuki Mala show is a blend of dance and film, and its first segment was spoken (live) by dancer Baykali Ganambarr as he explained that the traditions of the Yolngu people were comparatively intact, their land escaping colonisation until the 1930s. He ended his monologue with “we have survived. This is us.” Between dance sequences, the show’s film clips are mostly of interviews with the Galiwin’ku Community of Elcho Island. Margaret Nyungunyungu features heavily, and some of her stories give an insight into the sorrow in their lives over the twelve years since the Chooky dancers began—her accounts of the deaths of Frank Djirrimbilpilwuy and Lionel Dulmanawuy, Frank’s youngest son and creator of the Zorba the Greek dance, are heartbreaking.
The overall tone of the show, despite some sombre reflections, is light-hearted, and Margaret’s interviews give some interesting insight into the way the show began. The Djuki Mala website tells the story this way:
The dance was initially developed by Lionel Dulmanawuy, Frank’s youngest son. It was created as a thank you to a very special Greek lady named Liliane who was the main carer of his sister, Priscilla.
The funny dancing and comedic element of their performance also has its origins in their community, explains Lionel. “It’s a tradition in a young boy’s initiation ceremony. You make up funny dances and do them at the ceremony to make it more of a fun day for the young boy. Zorba the Greek is an extension of that.”
The first dance number of the show is in a traditional style, the dancers taking all the roles of a hunting narrative—the hunters with spears and throwing sticks, the brolga circling in the hunting ground. There’s a surprising shift into the contemporary: that famous interpretation of Zorba the Greek. Thereafter, the Djuki Mala troupe shift with each dance number to a bewildering array of popular culture and music including old rock and roll tunes, ambient techno, and perilously pitched-up R&B. All of these genres are reinterpreted Yolngu style—the Bhangra number that follows Zorba the Greek features not only Bollywood stereotypes like gold turbans and a 4-man Shiva, but matching gold loincloths and a brief gesture that suggests marsupial ears.
There is a great deal of value in a spiegeltent full (and I mean full) of theatregoers being exposed to Yolngu culture. The Djuki Mala show is loud, fast, and a whole lot of fun, and the video sequences add another, more thoughtful dimension, giving the audience some insight into the way that the dancers see their performance within Yolngu tradition. The Djuki Mala dancers are athletic, tireless, and hilarious; their show is a fun trip through the world’s popular culture, seen through Yolngu eyes.
Chris Arnold is Westerly‘s web editor.