YOU COULD GUESS that most staging instructions for live performers would not include four inches of "white quartz sand free of pebbles or clay" to be uniformly spread on the performing area, or 50 foot-long eucalyptus branches.
And most group's pyrotechnics do not request a real fire center stage. However, Australia's Dancers of the Dreaming, performing outside in the University of Arizona Fine Arts courtyard Thursday, April 20, represent even more of a departure from the usual than live flames and branches suggest.
Most anthropologists agree the culture of the first peoples of Australia is 40,000 years old. That's a lot of generations. Long enough to forget your songs and dances unless your culture is one based on an oral tradition powerfully connected to everyday life and a spiritual consciousness powerfully connected to reverence for the earth and your place within it.
Like many ancient cultures the world over, Australian aborigines do not divide artistic expression into separate "arts." Song, dance, mime, painting, sculpture and storytelling are integrated into daily life. Rituals and ceremonies are not reserved for church, drama for the theatre, or song for the concert hall.
Thursday night will be no different. The group of performers will be playing the music and dancing the dances that express their 40,000 continuous years of cultural awareness.
Twenty-five years ago the newly formed Aboriginal Cultural Foundation began sponsoring gatherings to draw together those tribes who survived 200 years after the arrival of the Europeans. The foundation's aim was to "rescue" the surviving cultural heritage. And after staging events on their own continent, they took groups abroad; by 1981 their tours included the United States.
Just as we sometimes worry over a problem and sleep on it, and somewhere in the dream an answer comes, the aborigines tap the source of enlightenment found in the world of dreamtime. They enter dreamtime when they dance, sing, play instruments and enact stories. When they die they return to dreamtime. The metaphors and stories that come from the dreamtime represent an unbroken thread from the beginning of human consciousness.
To them the earth was sung into existence, the rocks and waterscapes formed by the exploits of beings who inhabited the earth before humans. When they enact the stories, perform the ritualistic ceremonies, the power inherent in life is transfused into the event and them and then diffused into the landscape.
The spiritual values they personify all speak to balance, to agreements, to sharing. This is no small matter. In their 40,000 years on earth their impact--unlike the industrial world--has been almost traceless. Their reverence and gratitude results in a reciprocity with the animals, the vegetation and the climate.
The chants, the cries, the languages, the rhythms, and the dances may be exotic to us. The symbolic allusion and imagery may not relate to our everyday. But even Tucson has a few players of the aboriginal instrument, the didjeridu. Made from a four-foot long, hollow eucalyptus branch, without holes or a mouthpiece, players keep the beat with their tongues without pausing for air. Like East Indian and African reed players, didjeridu players use the technique of circular breathing to sustain that low, rumbling, ethereal drone.
The aboriginal dance styles have inspired choreographers worldwide. The leaps seem to be spontaneous, without physical preparation--as if they are on springs. The rhythmic stamping is a feature of most tribal dance styles, but each one differs, and the counter movements in the arms are precise and expressive. Wooden sticks are hit together to make the clicking sounds that accompany the song and dance.
Parallels between the native cultures of Australia and our own continent are evident. Displaced from their homelands, reduced dramatically in numbers and brutally treated, both native populations have somehow managed to survive and at last gain some political power in the last few decades. Both have had their cultural heritage threatened almost to extinction.
Thursday night's events appropriately include Native American presentations preceding the Dancers of the Dreaming, including dance, storytelling and a symposium addressing the difficulties minority cultures face in preserving their artistic identities.
The pre-performance show begins at 6 p.m. with a didjeridu demonstration. Or gain a photographic perspective of aborigines in their disappearing native lands in Leah King-Smith's Patterns of Connection exhibit, open until 5 p.m. at the adjacent Center for Creative Photography.
In Battery Park, New York, the Dancers of the Dreaming staged a night concert on the beach. Nearby was a modern art exhibit with themes of disintegration and decay. Adults and children sat on the beach and watched a performance about wholeness, balance and mutual support silhouetted against the fire as night got darker.
Not unaware of other peoples and their cultures, it could be that the aborigines have now brought their public-sacred music and dance out into the world because even the vast, desolate territory left to them is suffering the effects of the rest of the world's encroachment.
In our culture of nearly unabashed "planned obsolescence" and the narrow "fifteen minutes of fame," we may have something to learn from a culture that has lasted tens of thousands of years.
Dancers of the Dreaming perform at 8 p.m., Thursday, April 20 in the UA Fine Arts courtyard. For information about pre-concert events and tickets call the Centennial Hall box office, 621-3364.
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