Gary Lang’s Waŋa dance collaboration explores ancient and modern beliefs about death

Written by Javed Iqbal

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.”

A group of dancers surrounded by smoke on stage.
The spirit world is said to rejoice at the return of a spirit after death.(Delivered: Paz Tassone)
Two dancers perform the journey of the spirit.
Waŋa is set to music by the Darwin Symphony Orchestra.(Delivered: Paz Tassone)

“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.

A portrait of two men in front of a stage.
The performance is a collaboration between Gary Lang and Banula Marika.(ABC News: Felicity James)

“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.

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Gary Lang describes his works as ‘Indigenous ballet’.(Delivered: Paz Tassone)

“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.

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Javed Iqbal

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