Monday, 18 May 2009

Dreaming Festival gathers global indigenous artists

THE campfires will burn through the cool June winter nights at The Dreaming Festival. They will burn and the world will settle in around them.

Mihirangi, New Zealand-born singer with Maori, Dutch, Italian and Greek ancestry is coming to the international indigenous festival at Woodford. So is award-winning artist Judy Watson, whose work has thrilled Paris. They join Mick Dodson and actor Deb Mailman and singer Archie Roach.

"This is about indigenous culture from the world as well as from Australia," says Rhoda Roberts, artistic director of The Dreaming Festival, the laid-back winter equivalent of the summer Woodford Folk Festival, held on the same site in Jinibara country, north of Brisbane, from June 5 to 8.

Roberts waited three years for David Page to be free over a June long weekend so he could bring his nationally acclaimed Page 8 show to The Dreaming Festival.

A half a world away, she also snapped up the Totonaca Dancers, often referred to as "the flying men of Mexico". Their Huahua dance is the whirling depictions of their totem rainforest bird, ancient rituals that survived the Spanish arrival. It has never been seen in this country before.

She then asked Don Walker, formerly of pub rock band Cold Chisel, who said he was humbled but was she sure? "I said yes. I wanted a music industry insider to talk about what it's really like." She loved the north Queensland songwriter's first book Shots, a cool compelling series of vignettes. "I wanted white faces as well as black," Roberts says.

"This festival is not about us and them."

The former actor, dancer, journalist and television presenter was invited to take on The Dreaming in 2003. Roberts, who had directed similar shows in Sydney during and after the 2000 Olympic Games, grabbed the opportunity and turned The Dreaming into an annual, four-day, outdoor indigenous carnival. Audiences can camp onsite in the rural valley.

So, who turns up at The Dreaming Festival? More than 16,000 people attended last year, most from southeast Queensland with 40 per cent interstate visitors. Surveys show 13 per cent of respondents identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Island and 7 per cent as overseas indigenous; 40 per cent come from the management and professional sector; 62 per cent are university-educated and 18 to 29-year-olds are the largest age group.

Among the festival speakers this year will be Brisbane artist Judy Watson, whose subtly political and intensely personal works were permanently installed within the architectural fabric of the new Musee du quai Branly in Paris in 2006. She is part of the "my favourite books" discussion.

The Mundubbera-born, Acacia Ridge-raised artist with an Aboriginal mother and Scottish-English father says she believes it is a privilege to attend The Dreaming. She'll be taking her children, aged 6 and 8.

"It is a very energising, creative and enriching experience to be there. It is very laid-back and intimate with warm fires to sit around and listen to an elder or chat."

Roberts is particularly proud of the festival's theatre program. A stand-out show will be Reliquary, a collaboration between Australian choreographer, formerly of the Bangarra dance group, Gina Rings, and Korean choreographer Soo Yuen You. It has been described by critics as a multi-disciplinary masterpiece that draws upon the symbolism and spiritually of Aboriginal and Korean cultural heritage, through dance, puppetry, media projection and aesthetic sound design.

Reliquary, which means a container for important mementoes that have survived destruction, seems an appropriate inclusion. I saw an early version of this in Melbourne a year ago and it has a profound and unforgettable beauty.

Roberts says it is a collaboration that reflects where Australia is at now.

"The country's focus is on Asia and the South Pacific. With that in mind works like this strengthen ties and also have dual audiences and longevity."

Rather than a set theme, the threads that tie The Dreaming Festival are strong and often invisible. This year's threads are the youth voice, highlighted with the inclusion of Rikina Inma Dance Group, representing the APY (Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankuntjatjara) Lands, encompassing 103,000sq km of remote country in the northwest of South Australia.

Roberts believes their journey is extraordinary. "These are young men coming from South Australia and APY Lands who were basically out of Alice Springs town fringe camps and spent a number of years working with youth groups.

"One of the things they talked about was when we see Central Desert dance it is by elderly ladies and these young men said, 'Where is our traditional dance of the young people?'.

"They took on a huge challenge. They went back to the APY Lands and spoke to the dance custodians, the song men and women and got permission to perform.

"I think it's extraordinary the groups of homeland elders have allowed young men to express their cultural knowledge," Roberts says.

"It's historic, never happened before.

"And once the elderly people are gone, these young ones will actually hold the knowledge.

"Luckily they are so passionate.

"And luckily, audiences get to see them perform when they enter The Dreaming site."

The Dreaming Festival, June 5-8, Woodford Folk Festival grounds.

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