A dance for the winds

By Diana Plater/AAP with AG STAFF 27 May 2011
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Torres Strait Islander culture is the inspiration for a new dance performance which is touring nationally.

FOR TORRES STRAIT ISLANDERS – a people who rely so much on the sea – wind is not just wind. In their languages there are different names for different winds, depending on their character and moods. There’s “zei”, the cold breeze; and “kuki”, the little cyclone that causes damage but is not as ferocious as one like Tracy; “nagai”, when the sea is dead or so calm there’s almost no wind; and “sager”, the choppy wind when the pearl luggers go out to sea.

These winds and the emotions they conjure is the theme of About by Torres Strait Islander dancer/choreographer Elma Kris, one of two new works for Belong, Bangarra Dance Theatre‘s latest show.

In Bangarra’s offices at the Wharf overlooking Sydney Harbour, and just before she’s about to go into morning rehearsals, Elma explains what these winds mean to her and her people.

Torres Straight Islands: winds of emotion

She was born and grew up on Thursday Island, the administrative centre of the Torres Strait on the tip of Far North Queensland, but spent holidays on the “outer islands” such as Mabuiag, where her mother is from. “My parents always talked about these winds and we can’t see these winds but they feel the emotion or the prophecy about the sky or what the trees are doing,” Elma says.

Her father, who, originally, is from the Fly River in Papua New Guinea, travels a lot by dinghy. “So he would have to know what the wind would do to the sea – whether to travel on the south-east winds, or the north winds – and he talks about how the north winds would be still; that would be a good journey for them to travel. When it’s calm, we call it like a dead sea.”

“And my mother likes to fish a lot so she would watch the tide, and say, ‘OK let’s go fishing’ and I would go, ‘oh but the tide’s a bit rough’ and she’d say, ‘we’ll get a good catch’.”

Torres Strait Islanders are also guided by the winds as to whether it’s a good time to go hunting for turtle or crayfish, and also when it’s time to shelter from a cyclone. Traditionally, these people compose songs and dances to describe the winds, which are also their totems. They use decorations, props they hold in their hands while they dance and headdresses that represent elements such as stars and clouds.

Shimmery seas around the Torres Straight

Inspired by this, Elma has her 14 dancers wearing arm bands that represent the winds. For instance blue for zei, charcoal black for kuki, silver for naigai (like the shimmery sea on a calm day) and white chalk for sager (like the dust that blows in your eyes at this time or the whites of the choppy waves).

Elma, 39, learnt traditional dance from grade 7 in primary school but she also watched her elders dancing at celebrations. Often too, Papua New Guineans would journey over to the islands on their “banana dinghies” – small aluminium boats with sails made out of potato sacks or mats – to take part in weddings, feasts and gravestone unveilings.

It was during her dance training at NAISDA, Australia’s national indigenous dance college, though that she learnt more about her own culture, with elders from Sabai Island teaching her how to play traditional instruments as well as dance.

When she was growing up her mother didn’t speak much “language” as she calls Kalaw Lagaw Ya, the language of the western and central Torres Strait Islands, but would converse in Creole, a form of English. “The only time you got to see them talk language was when there was an event on the island or people coming to a celebration. My mother would always say to me, ‘don’t listen to us – go and do chores’.”

So “language” words and traditional instruments have been included in the music, composed by David Page.

Elma has also been inspired by cultural consultant actor and dancer Peggy Misi, also from the Torres Strait who “really knows her culture”. She says that while people may have heard of famous Torres Strait Islanders such as land rights activist Eddie Mabo and singer (and former Bangarra dancer) Christine Anu, possibly only about half the country knows anything at all about her still-strong culture. So she welcomes the opportunity to widen that knowledge.

“People ask me in the street if I’m from Africa and I say, ‘no I’m from a place that is part of Australia’. I say, ‘you can Google it’.”

Belong opens in Brisbane on July 1 before a national tour which includes Sydney, Perth, Canberra, Wollongong and Melbourne.