ArtsReview

Ghenoa Gela – doing it her way

Somehow Ghenoa Gela’s warmth and energy flows through my phone and dispels the gloom of a steadfastly rainy day. I’m talking to her about her one-woman show, My Urrwai, which has toured Australia and soon will be opening at the Sydney Opera House.

 

My Urrwai Hero. Image: David Collins

Gela is a multiple award-winning choreographer, an acclaimed comedian, dancer, actor, theatre-maker and teacher, and My Urrwai tells the deeply personal story of how this proud Torres Strait Islander woman determined her own cultural and political identity. Urrwai means, she says, “the style of your dancing…the style of you… the spirit of you… it is like an embodiment of you… your inner spirit.” It is perhaps something close to an individual’s particular passion, the inner force that shapes and drives them.

Gela is passionate about focussing attention on the Torres Strait Islander culture. For too long the Islands have been the lesser partner in the Aboriginal-and-Torres-Strait-Islander designation, and she hopes to contribute to making them known as a distinct and vibrant group with a particular history and rich and diverse socio-cultural practices. While Gela grew up in Rockhampton within a family which maintained Torres Strait Island traditions, she found herself considered “other” and dismissed as “a mainlander Islander” when she first visited the Torres Straits Islands. She has turned the tables nicely.

For this Rockhampton girl, traditional dance was a central part of her life from an early age. Learning her grandmother’s dances from Moa Island was much a part of her rigorous daily routine as school and homework. Despite her immersion in traditional dance, her ambition as a teenager inclined more towards sport at which she excelled. However, she auditioned for NAISDA and as she says, “the rest is history”. Now, her grandmother’s dance plays a very significant part in her life, as Gela is the last individual who can pass on the knowledge and practice of the Moan dances and she is, in herself, a significant Torres Strait Island cultural treasure.

As storytelling and dance are a close fit in Indigenous culture, Gela was at first “thrown off guard” by the separation between the spoken word and movement in Western theatrical tradition. A passionate and gifted storyteller, she chose to follow her own tradition and in My Urrwai she integrates both movement and words in her often comical and provocative exploration of what it is like for an Indigenous woman to navigate the conflicting expectations of culture, politics and family.

It is the duty of the artist, Gela feels, to reflect their times and she sees our post-colonial times as urgently in need of an honest reckoning with national inequity. A passion for truth-telling drives her performance as she feels that only by learning about “the other” can we create a better society for all in the future.

Gela’s unique and intimate performance is part of the Sydney Opera House’s Festival Unwrapped – May 2019, opening on May 8 and finishing on May 12.

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