Dreamtime becomes reality in Top End
The Darwin Festival unites its home city like few others do, writes Noel Mengel
EVERY year the Northern Territory attracts tourists from Australia and abroad looking for an authentic Australian experience, something that puts them in touch with the land and its indigenous cultures.
August is the perfect time to do it, when the weather is warm and predictably fine. But it’s also a time to add value to an NT holiday through the Darwin Festival, an 18-day celebration that ranges from outdoor concerts to theatre, dance, music, comedy, cabaret, visual art and a celebration of Darwin’s food scene.
Many of the events are free and set under Darwin’s beautiful – and, at this time of year, cloudless – night skies in a range of outdoor venues, including the festival hub in Civic Park.
Darwin is a unique Australian city, with its strong connections to Asia, its proud tradition of welcoming immigrant communities – from the strong Chinese connection through to more recent arrivals from Timor and Africa – and, of course, indigenous culture through music, dance and art.
And this is one arts festival connected to its community. It’s a time of year when Darwin residents wouldn’t dream of taking a holiday anywhere else: about three-quarters of the population attend festival events.
Part of the festival brief is to reflect that rich diversity, beginning with a free concert on August 12 in the beautiful tropical surrounds of the Botanic Gardens Amphitheatre. Performers include Emma Donovan and Liberty Songs, which features Shellie Morris, Leah Flanagan and Lou Bennett with members of Darwin’s Liberian community, including the African Gospel choir.
Among the theatrical attractions are Wrong Skin, a performance featuring The Chooky Dancers from Elcho Island in Arnhem Land, which is also the home of NT’s hottest music export, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. Wrong Skin is a story of forbidden love and clan loyalties, exploring what happens in a remote Arnhem Land community where laws of skin and clan define relationships.
But, like everyone else, indigenous communities love new technology, and Wrong Skin fuses traditional dance with Chooky disco dancing and footage shot on mobile phones. ( August 27-28, Playhouse, Darwin Entertainment Centre.)
Also meshing the ancient and modern is Goose Lagoon, directed by former Bangarra Dance Theatre performer Gary Lang, which melds traditional and contemporary styles with puppetry to give a fresh perspective on Dreamtime stories. The original score uses traditional songs as well as magpie geese, recorded in the Maramakala wetlands of Arnhem Land. ( August 13-15, Playhouse.)
Contemporary music also has a central role in the festival, and this year performers include The Cat Empire, John Butler Trio, East Timorese songwriter Ego Lemos and Tex Perkins’ smash-hit Johnny Cash stage show, The Man In Black, as well as late-night shows at Darwin’s funky little indie club the Happy Yess.
But the real musical highlight is the annual Indigenous Music Awards, which shine a light on the stunning diversity of the Top End’s music scene. While Gurrumul has spread the word about NT music to a new audience in Europe and the US, there are many more performers stretched from the deserts of Alice Springs to the islands of the north.
Performers at the Indigenous Music Awards this year ( August 28, Botanic Gardens Amphitheatre) include the hotly tipped Saltwater Band, featuring Gurrumul, and another act who are legends in NT, the Tableland Drifters.
FINE ART: Every August Darwin comes together for an explosion of artistic talent, the Darwin Festival.