In 2007, Frank Djirrimbilpilwuy uploaded a video of a performance by the ‘Chooky Dancers’ of North East Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. In the video, the small group of Indigenous Australian dancers performed a dance routine to ‘Zorba the Greek’, conceived by Djirrimbilpilwuy’s son, Lionel Dulmanawuy. It was created as a thank you to a Greek friend. Twelve weeks later, the YouTube video had received 500,000 hits worldwide. To date, the video has been viewed over 2.7 million times.
Since that time, the Chooky Dancers have changed the name of their group to ‘Djuki Mala’ (‘Djuki is the adopted word for ‘chook’ and ‘Mala’ describes a mob.) They have performed in China, the Solomon Islands, Canada, the UK, Europe, the Middle East and right across Australia. The troupe was even invited to perform in Greece by the creator of the film Zorba the Greek. Their performances have garnered substantial audience and critical acclaim, the group having clocked up some award wins along the way.
Djuki Mala’s performances combine traditional Yolngu culture with popular culture, contemporary dance styles and multimedia elements. Their initial production, Ngurru-milmarrmiriw (Wrong Skin), was a Romeo and Juliet-esque tale of forbidden love. Now, the group has returned to the stage with its second production – this time self-titled – which arrives at the Sydney Opera House studio following sold-out stops in Perth and at the Adelaide Fringe Festival. This is the third occasion on which Djuki Mala has taken the stage at the prestigious harbourside venue.
Originally performed in Darwin in 2014, Djuki Mala’s self-titled production traces the origins of the group a decade ago and its evolution since that time, packaging that story with the high energy dance content, comedy and clowning, and multimedia elements for which the group has become well known. Beginning with an impressive display of traditional dance from the Yolngu culture by the five members of the troupe, underscored by an earthy and ethereal Indigenous musical track, the show moves through to a wonderfully comedic performance of ‘Zorba the Greek’, a nod to the iconic dancers of the MGM film era with a ‘Singin’ in the rain’ routine (complete with umbrellas), and even a skilfully performed tribute to the King of Pop.
Each performer is unfailingly exuberant for the entire 60-minute piece. There’s also a palpable sense of joy that characterises their dancing. It’s as clear as day these dancers enjoy what they do, and that they genuinely revel in being able to share their talents with an audience (and on opening night, those attending were enormously receptive).
The end result is that Djuki Mala is a high spirited, highly entertaining, feel-good dance theatre experience unlike anything else you’ve seen. It also serves as a wonderful consolidation of the fact that while indigenous Australians preserve their own vital customs and traditions, their community enjoys the same pop culture influences as the rest of the Australian population – a simple but important demonstration that we’re all bound together in more ways than perhaps we actually think.
Djuki Mala perform at the Sydney Opera House through until June 18