The youthful Ghenoa Gela practising her dance steps in front of the mirror

Posted by Jeremy Eccles | 21.01.18

Dates: 19.01.18 : 04.02.18
Location: Belvoir Theatre, Belvoir Street, Surry Hills, Sydney

Incredibly, Belvoir Theatre in Sydney has shows Upstairs and Downstairs that originate from the Torres Strait. That's an impressive first. Jimi Bani may fill the bigger venue nightly with laughs, but Ghenoa Gela presses you against the walls of the tiny Downstairs venue with a performance that's simply a force of nature. And it's by no means all laughs.

Mind you, you're lead into believing that this little chunk of the TSI with the most appealing pair of eyes on any stage in Australia is going to woo you with folksy words and movement (actually, the movement comes first, then the Meriam Mer language, and only than her perfect English). But, as the show progresses – more side-steps than forward progression – we get into politics, sexuality, police harassment, religion and some serious culture. And Ghenoa – or is it Genoa with a soft G, the debate remained unresolved at the end, so I settled for Noa Girl! - takes you with her all the way.

For this is a woman sunk deep into Island culture – especially the dance side of it – despite being born and brought up in Rocky – Rockhampton to non-Queenslanders, the beef capital of Australia. Her parents – especially a hard task-master of a Dad, who sat stony-faced through his daughter's opening performance in Sydney despite her best efforts to improvise some rapport – were determined not to lose their cultures, both traditional and Christian, following the 19th Century Coming of the Light. At the end, he applauded as hard as anyone – so her efforts must have paid-off. And Ghenoa claimed that, as a result, she was the last one left to dance her grandmother (Aka's) dance on Moa – which she reports doing to the accompaniment of the sort of drums and recorded singing that I missed so much in the 'Mission Songs Project' last weekend. Sadly, the dance itself can only be performed in the right circumstance on Moa Island.

Her entry into the wider Australian performance world came via NAISDA – a disappointment to the culturally aware student, for they only did an hour a week of Island dance. But this hasn't stopped her choreographing with Force Majeur – whose founder, Kate Champion repaid Ghenoa by acting as dramaturg and Movement Consultant on 'My Urrwai'. Gela has also starred with Hot Brown Honey at the Opera House and Edinburgh Festival. Ilbijerri Theatre's Rachael Maza helped develop the show from its fundamentally comic origins into this tour de force – but challenged me with a statement about the problems of cracking a “predominantly white arts industry”. I've seen more shows directed by Maza recently than works by Neil Armfield!

Champion's achievement was to smooth over the progression from tiny tot at school to “token Black woman” on major arts funding applications via a series of quite disparate episodes. Stand-outs included the books of the Bible recited while doing ballet practice at the barre, her dismissal by the 'gammon' girls hogging the boys back on the Islands, and her waltz with a yard broom!

But this sort of material only filled the gaps between scenes that tackled the seriousness of her upbringing, her debating the value of TSI Christianity against the loss of the Islands' ancient practices, her confession to her weeping mother of a preference for other women, and her very serious lessons for Blackfellas when threatened with loitering by the cops on Town Hall Station, involving audience participation that provocatively crossed racial barriers.

Less successful was an odd episode of shoe sizing at Blochs, the ballet emporium.

The show's conclusion that there were misconceptions on both sides hardly spoke true. That Noa Girl sees the world very clearly through those appealing eyes. I just wish I knew what her Urrwai was!


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Ghenoa shows off her arm movements in 'My Urrwai'


Ghenoa Gela turns on the serious during 'My Urrwai' - all pictures by David Charles Collins.


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