The performance of Waŋa – which means spirit – starts behind a thin veil with a glimpse of the “world between” and an ancient Yolŋu burial ceremony.
Telling the story of a spirit’s journey after death, Larrakia choreographer Gary Lang has worked with Rirratjŋu teacher and ceremonial adviser Banula Marika to create the performance.
“This performance is called Spirit and it is the spirit of the Dhuwa clans,” said Mr Marika at the Yolŋu Matha with the assistance of an interpreter.
“When I pass, my spirit will return to my homeland, the homeland of which we tell this story.”
“This is also my second home and place where my spirit comes from and my clan.”
The collaboration between NT Dance Company, MIKU Performing Arts and the Darwin Symphony Orchestra attempts to capture the pain and relief of the passing of a spirit.
Lang said his late grandmother also taught him about the spirit world.
“She said, ‘what happens Gary, in the spirit world when that spirit has to come to the physical world, there are tears of sorrow there because it’s a loss and there are tears of joy in the physical world,'” said Mr. Lang.
“And [after death] it works the other way around, there are tears of sadness because there is a loss and there are tears of joy because it is going home again.”
He said the performance tried to represent the process of passing through a veil from the physical world to an “in-between world”.
“We don’t know the intermediate world,” he said.
“Between that veil and before you actually enter heaven, I think that’s where the whole ceremony takes place in the culture.
“That it helps you leave all the physical attachments and then you step into the world of wonder.”
Burial ceremonies can last for days, weeks or months in Yolŋu culture, including in Mr. Marika’s community in Yirrkala.
“It depends on who the person is, the time of year, what’s happening with the weather, it’s not like a clock,” he said.
“It’s time for what needs to happen for that person and for the family.”
In this performance, the ancient story of a spirit on its way home – guided by the morning star – comes together with a modern interpretation of sorrow and grief.
“Building a relationship with the family in East Arnhem Land, it’s not just a one-day or two-day thing, it’s basically a lifelong connection, making that connection, forming that trust,” Mr Lang said.
“I’m still learning, and especially in traditional culture, I’m still learning.
“I’m not saying I know it all, but I have to do the right things by asking permission.”
Marika has been more than willing to share her knowledge with others.
“It helps to come together and learn each other’s culture and have a better understanding of each other,” he said.
“So people can understand our culture that has existed for over 80,000.”