Review of Thomas E.S. Kelly's SILENCE

15 Sep

Review of Thomas E.S. Kelly's SILENCE

Karul Project's Silence makes its world premiere leaving audiences screaming praises

Review by Ellen van Neervan

‘Stop the silence!’ is the message of Thomas E.S. Kelly’s Silence, which made its impressive world premiere in Meanjin at Brisbane Festival on Thursday the 10th of September.

Earlier that morning, community received the heartbreaking news that there had been a death in custody in the city’s watchhouse. My first thought was: ‘When? When will this stop happening to our people? When will Black Lives Matter?’ At the wake of the news, I did not feel like leaving the house and entering the city. I’m glad I did; seeing Silence in the theatre of Brisbane Powerhouse full with many of Meanjin’s First Nations community members was respite for the soul in these challenging times. The crowd experienced a connection, a gathering and a sing-up of the spirits. 

Thomas E.S Kelly is a Bundjalung-Yugambeh, Wiradjuri and Ni-Vanuatu dancer and choreographer living on Country in the Gold Coast. He started up Karul Projects (from a Yugambeh word meaning ‘everything’) with his partner Taree Sansbury, who is also one of the performers in the show. Silence began through a BlakDance residency in 2018. Meanjin-based Indigenous dance company BlakDance are the producers of the show. 

High intensity dance meets live percussion by local legend Jhindu-Pedro, son of Bunna Lawrie from Coloured Stone. The dancers begin the performance shroud in heavy brown-coloured layers against a dark backdrop giving the show an apocalyptic feel. As the layers peel off, the stories unfold.

With symbolism heavily steeped in land rights and Treaty, the show explores what a 250+ year-long denial of meaningful listening to First Nations people has done to the psyche of the people and land. Brown feet kick up sand, earth, dirt and dust. The sand seeps through brown fingers as it always has. Always was, always will be.  

In choir formation, the performers sing the Australian anthem in its Yugambeh interpretation, as it has been sung for the last few years during sporting activities on Yugambeh land. The recital is not without a sprinkle of irony, after all, what is a national anthem for a nation state that is an illegal occupation? The performers move into enacting the theatre of footy with a possum skin ball—symbolising sport was not brought here by the invaders. They end the footy scene holding up shirts and pointing to their exposed skin, Nicky Winmar style. We are proud. We are still here. We will not be silenced.  

Australia is the only Commonwealth country in the world without a treaty, and there have been conversations that have been going on for a long time on how to progress and formalise First Nations sovereignty to the land. We have very little representation in parliament. Silence demands meaningful change of power relations between First Nations and non-Indigenous, not a token statement. The centrepiece of Silence is an understanding of Treaty through a dance performance that is personal, intimate and uncompromising. 

I see the influence of experienced dramaturgs Vicki Van Hout and Alethea Beetson in the well-timed comedic moments of Silence, including a hilarious call centre scene where the First Nations people politely ask for a few hundred years of overdue rent from the Commonwealth which had the audience in stitches. 

Thomas embodies his ancestors through Wiradjuri and Yugambeh teachings and spoken language. Stories of the stars, rivers, ocean and totem animals locate the piece in the artist’s Country and with his family. His dance is informed by his traditional teachings. He holds space for the ancestors to dance with him.

Yugambeh Country spans Country now called greater Brisbane, Logan, Gold Coast and the Scenic Rim. As a Yugambeh person, I was deeply moved seeing our strong culture weaved on stage and for this work to be the first independent, full-length First Nations contemporary dance work to be performed on a stage in Meanjin in over a decade. It has been a long time, but it has been worth the wait. Thomas talks about the influence of his mother to his art, and I am also strengthened through my own mother, who was sitting next to me in the crowd. My chosen art form is poetry and my latest book is about the silencing of our voices and how we must speak up. It is no coincidence that two Yugambeh people made works called Throat and Silence this year. We are combating ongoing colonisation and ongoing silence at a very important time in history. As Brisbane Festival director, Louise Bezzina, said at the conclusion of the show, ‘This had to happen in 2020’. Yes, this piece is an urgent piece of ceremony. It was an incredible effort from the artists, producers and the festival to deliver this show during a COVID-19 interrupted and uncertain time. As it was an incredible effort for the audience to be able to greet this work in a ‘new normal’ theatre. We stood to give this work the standing ovation and impromptu Yothu Yindi ‘Treaty’ singalong it deserved. 

In 2020, we are continuing our ancestors’ talk, and we will not be silenced. 

Past Event
10 – 13 Sept


Brisbane Powerhouse

Brisbane Festival expresses deep respect to and acknowledges the First People of this Country.