The story of the Seven Sisters who were pursued across the country by a man (wati) named Nyiru is one of the most widespread of Dreaming narratives in the desert regions of Australia. It is also one that has instant appeal to non-Indigenous audiences, as we recognize in its contours the story of the hunter Orion who eternally pursues the seven sisters known as the Pleiades across the night sky.
Over the years I have seen many paintings of this theme from many parts of the country ranging from Balgo through Yuendumu and down into the northern hills of South Australia. But now I’ve had the chance to hear a version of the story told in greater detail than ever before, thanks to the genius of creative director Wesley Enoch, the APY Women’s Council, the National Museum of Australia, and the Australian National University in concert with the Songlines Project under the direction of Diana James. As part of the celebrations of the centennial of Canberra, the Songlines Project staged Kungkarangkalpa: Seven Sisters Songline on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin earlier this month.
It looked to be a bitterly cold night. The audience was well insulated in heavy coats and beanies. The women who sang were wrapped in blankets before a fire, but the poor dancers, dressed in little more than body paint and feathers, must have been having a hard time of it. Not that you could tell; the grace of their performance was unaffected by the wind that made the flames onstage tremble.
The production is visually stunning. A large, multipart screen allowed for the projection of amazing visuals ranging from landscape portraits of Atila (Mt Connor), the locus of this instance of the Dreaming to cave paintings, bush fires, and celestial maps. There’s one incredible sequence in which the shadow cast by Tapaya Edwards, who plays Wati Nyiru is transformed into the silhouette of an enormous tree–only one of the many magical transformations that take place in the course of the telling of this story. And although the libretto, Inawinytji Williamson with translation by Diana James, is largely sung, supertitles and interspersed narration make it simple to follow the episodes of the action.
But I won’t say more. The magic was captured during the March 2 performance, and is available for all to see on Vimeo. Have a look–it’s wonderful theatre from start to finish—especially at the end when the sisters are transformed into stars floating above the audience.