Ghenoa Gela at Sydney Festival: What if the village was ours?

Ghenoa Gela's 'Gurr Era Op'. Photo by Ashley de Prazer.
Ghenoa Gela's 'Gurr Era Op'. Photo by Ashley de Prazer.

How would you feel if your home was being erased? Inundated.

For most, this is a rhetorical question; yet, for the people of the Torres Strait (and in places like Tuvalu and Bangladesh), it is existential. The ocean is rising. Homelands are disappearing.

Zoom closer, dig deeper, and we meet people whose countries are being incrementally swallowed by the sea. Imagine if this was happening in your front yard. Whatever we might think about climate change and the culture wars swirling around it, the literal loss of place is something deeply felt. Indeed, it cuts to the core of who we think we are.

For Ghenoa Gela, rising sea levels are a personal matter; as is her upcoming Sydney Festival work with Force Majeure, Gurr Era Op. Meaning, ‘face of the sea’ in Meriam Mir, it stars four Torres Strait women, each of whom are affected by the flooding of the islands their families have lived on for generations.

“It’s been horrifying watching, knowing that my family is potentially next,” Gela begins. Aside from the attendant “why aren’t we talking more about this?” question, and the related issues of government inaction, she is quick to acknowledge her own distance. “I was born in Rockhampton in central Queensland. I’m a mainland born Torres Strait Islander. But the rest of my family are up there,” she explains. “So, it’s happening to me indirectly, although the effects on me are quite direct.”

Perhaps it is this mix of separation and connection that has allowed the Sydney based multi-platform artist (dancemaker, stand-up comic, actor), to drive the creation of Gurr Era Op. As she recalls, “I found myself in a position where, you know, I felt quite lost; not sure of what I could do.”

However, Gela was inspired by the actions of the Torres Strait 8, the group of claimants who lodged a complaint against the Australian government with the United Nations Human Rights Committee. They argued that government inaction on climate was hindering their right to life, culture and freedom from arbitrary impacts on their families, homes and privacy. In September, the UN ruled in their favour, and the case is now regarded as a potential landmark.

Watching on, Gela wondered what she could do. As an artist. Her 2024 Sydney Festival season is partly a result of this prompting; but the work is also the creative descendent of an earlier piece made with Force Majeure AD, Danielle Micich, called Mura Buai. “The hardest thing was trying not to say everything,” she declares. “So, it really comes down to, ‘What is my voice and what do I want to say?’”

Unpacking this in terms of making an hour of dance, she elaborates, “It’s layers upon layers upon layers that mean something, probably more to me than it does to the outer realm. People will see what they want to see, so you make what you want to make in order to feel like you’re saying what you want to say. I know that’s quite vague but, you know, it took almost six years to get here.”

The journey, like the destination, was, and is, not solitary. Gurr Era Op will feature four performers (Gela included), all of whom are schooled in the traditions of Torres Strait Island dance. “Ultimately, I could have made another one woman show. Like, there’s so many ways to make a show; but the importance of visibility to me is bigger. I mean, how many Torres Strait Islander women do you see performing on our stages currently?”

Here, Gela is pointing to something less obvious, yet equally impactful. There is, she contends, an unconscious (and false) idea afoot that there is a singular indigenous identity in Australia. Although the work will be staged at Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Studio One, she insists that the nation’s premier aboriginal arts brand does not represent all First Nations people. “Bangarra is definitely not a representation of me and my people,” she says matter-of-factly. 

Ghenoa Gela's 'Gurr Era Op'. Photo by Ashley de Prazer.
Ghenoa Gela’s ‘Gurr Era Op’. Photo by Ashley de Prazer.

In parallel, Gurr Era Op also bucks the well-documented body orthodoxy of dance. “I can’t believe we’re still trying to break this idea of what the perfect dancer’s body should be, or look like, especially as women.”

When we move past the various aesthetics of performative dance and the expectations of festival goers, the artform reveals its deeper potential. According to Gela, “Dance is more than just dance. For me, dance is movement, and movement is storytelling… Moving with purpose is kind of like speaking with purpose. It’s another way to communicate how we’re feeling, or how we’re navigating. So, all the layers are there, hoping to catch somebody, somewhere.”

In January 2024, that purposive speaking will drill into matters both specific and universal. Rising seas may be a news item to most, yet, given the manner in which we routinely conflate identity with geography, the resulting flood is something we can all relate to.

“There’s a lot of questions around identity. Like, who are we if the islands go?” Gela muses. Rather than a political or merely ethnographic conjecture, this leans into profound psycho-spiritual territory.

“We’re constantly searching. Who you are, where you belong, who you belong with. And that’s an interesting journey. Whether it’s in the playground or the workplace or, you know, if you’re on a boat going on a cruise, you instantly put yourself in particular categories so that you can find yourself.”

In this, we glimpse the commonality at the heart of both the work and our broader humanity. “Why do we need to feel that way?” Gela asks. “I guess the aeons of history, of blood history running through our veins, kind of speaks to that.”

As if to offset a drift into metaphysical musing, she brings it back home. Remembering something her father used to say, she states, “Every person in the village has a job, and that’s how the village works.”

In the context of making a new work with Force Majeure and dealing with the countless nuts and bolts that entails, she concludes, her voice light, “I’m pretty happy with the village I have around me.”

Taking that as our cue, we may wonder how happy we are with our villages, and how it would feel if they too were to disappear into the sea.

Ghenoa Gela’s GURR ERA OP will be presented 13 – 19 January 2024, as part of Sydney Festival. For tickets and more information, head to www.sydneyfestival.org.au/events/gurr-era-op.

By Paul Ransom of Dance Informa.

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