A notable development in the performing arts is the arrival of Wiradjuri man, Daniel Riley as Artistic Director of the venerable contemporary dance company, ADT (Australian Dance Theatre). The Adelaide-based company has had some major figures running it – Elizabeth Dalman, Meryl Tankard and Garry Stewart spring to mind. But, unlike Bangarra which is specifically an Aboriginal Dance Theatre, ADT has not been racially identified before, though I suspect that Riley will take it that way. That would be a different direction to Wesley Enoch’s term as AD of the Queensland Theatre Company, which continued to produce non-Indigenous dramas.
Last year, Riley’s first full-length abstract work for ADT, ‘Savage’ was clearly identified by reviewers as a First Nations work in its unambiguous reference to the “settler-colonial invasion and its legacies”.
Now, the Sydney Festival has given the ADT a rare visit to Sydney to present the world premier of ‘Tracker’, a tribute to Riley’s own great-great uncle, Alec ‘Tracker’ Riley. A 40-year veteran of the NSW police force, be was the master of the Aboriginal art of tracking lost property, lost children, thieves and even murderers such as Roy Governor, brother of Jimmy who was made so notorious by Tom Keneally’s ‘Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith’.
The Governors, of course, were Tracker Riley’s own people. The ADT work inevitably raises the issue of whether a Wiradjuri man would seek to bring down his own. But much of the show’s text – and it is at least half text by Ursula Yovich and Amy Sole – reveals Riley’s admiration for the disguising techniques employed by Governor and his frustration at missing his man on so many occasions. Is it not possible that such a professional would see only triumph in his eventual success?
The most powerful visual element in the production would seem to deny such a reading. For, from before the start, we’ve been drawn to note a field of scattered stones. In a semi-ceremonial way, these are collected. And when dancer Tyral Dulvarie puts on Tracker’s Riley’s uniform jacket, this bag of stones is poured around him in a way that suggests traditional exorcism.
For the most part, Riley and his various trackings are performed by actor Abbie-lee Lewis. This was an heroic effort, for the original casting was of Ari Maza Long – son of Rachel Maza who was co-director of the show. Sadly, her mother Vera Blankman, widow of that wonderful man-of-theatre Bob Maza, died over Christmas, and the Mazas withdrew. But, artfully using a text tucked into the research papers she was reading to track her/his great great Unk, Lewis manged her gender-swap, her mixing of past and present characters and her interactions with the production’s three dancers without blinking.
ADT regulars used to some incredible physicality will be bemused by the mostly ‘quiet language’ of the text, I suspect. And the use of choreography to illustrate it – a storm and Lewis’s fear were notable examples – rather than as story-telling or abstract movement, was undoubtedly novel. Some of the floor-based dance recalled Daniel Riley’s long service as principal dancer with Bangarra. But such restraint was justified by the tale being told within Jonathon Jones’s tight circular set. His use of see-through painted scrim curtains that were pulled into different places throughout, offering the audience on three sides varying perspectives, hinted to the notion that the mists of history being lifted and lowered?
Finally, tribute must go to the live musicianship of Gary Watling on pedal steel guitar. The timelessness of this instrument allowed past and present to blend together, though, amped up, he did over-ride the text a couple of times.
Fortunately not in the most moving scene, where so much of Tracker Riley’s uncomfortable balance between Black and white worlds was evinced. Pursuing a lost child, he’s refused access on racial grounds to a property where he believes the child has headed, and 8 months are lost in finding the boy’s body. But as the text sweetly puts it, Riley believes his hill-top ending allowed him “to fall asleep with the stars”.