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AN AUSTRALIAN CORROBOREE

By Margaret Deefholts

It is a balmy December night, and Australia's sky is a thicket of stars, the Southern Cross seemingly at arm's reach. A marmalade moon has risen over a cluster of gum trees, and in a clearing before me, an enormous campfire crackles and spits pinpoints of light into the darkness.

It would seem as though the entire population of the little town on the fringe of the Blue Mountains in New South Wales has turned out tonight, their kids romping hand-in-hand around the bonfire, teenagers in huddled in groups around the fringes, and adults, ranging from thirty-something couples to seniors, clapping their hands to the rhythm of a live band on a small stage. The crooner belts out Country and Western ballads, Christmas carols and gospel music and the audience joins in. It's a big, happy party, Aussie style.

But it's not what I'd come here for. I'd arrived, in response to a local newspaper item, expecting an aboriginal music and dance festival: a Corroboree. An event seldom staged in an urban setting, and one which I am curious to see. As the evening goes on and Elvis impersonators gave way to amateur talent from the audience, I grow restive. Maybe the word "Corroboree" has been used in a broad generic sense to denote an Australian community celebration.

Then the stage lights dim and go out. The kids settle down with their parents, and the night, apart from a light breeze, rustling through the trees, is silent, expectant. The only sound is the distant call of a night bird, and the whine of a mosquito near my ear. The light of the bonfire, throws the circle of faces into relief. The thrum of a digeridoo-whum, whum, whum, wah- pause-whum, whum whum, wah…swells across the darkness. Figures emerge, feet stamping in rhythm. At first they are black silhouettes against the orange flames of the campfire, and then as they draw closer, I see them more clearly: faces dotted mask-like in white chalk, torsos decorated with circular designs and hand imprints, orange loin-cloths and string fringes tied around their legs.

This is an aboriginal hunting ritual, and the men, move slowly, in rhythm, in a circle around a guana-a large lizard which inhabits the Australian bush. The "guana-man", moves on his belly, creeping forward, retreating apprehensively, his movements, smooth and reptilian. The hunters crouch, wave their staves and boomerangs and utter high pitched calls in encouragement to one another. The rhythm accelerates and suddenly it is all over. The guana pierced, lies dead, and the hunters, leap, crouch, and knock their knees together in a jubilant dance. The audience goes wild.

A woman next to me, explains that in Aborigine Dream World mythology, a guana, is regarded with respect, because it brings sustenance to their people in the arid Outback. I want to ask where I can verify this information, but my attention is drawn again to the clearing, where the next item is in progress. This time the dance troupe, impersonating a flock of emus, pick their way delicately around the flicker of firelight. Hands clasped behind their backs, their elbows akimbo, they flap their "wings" and occasionally raise an arm, Z-like before their faces, capturing the pecking movement of a bird's head. The crowd claps in rhythm to the drone of the didgeridoo, and a small boy is drawn irresistibly into their midst. The dancers, without missing a step, surround him urging on his efforts to imitate them.

For the next hour, I am drawn into a different world. A world of myth and spiritual rituals. A world as simple and as complex as the creation of the earth and its creatures. A world of tribal loyalties, rivalry, initiation rites and survival in the raw Australian outback. There are no words, no songs, no explanations during this performance. Only the movement of lithe bodies, facial expressions, gestures and whoops of sorrow or joy. All enacted in shadow play against the flames of the campfire, and the primordial glitter of stars. My absorption in the performance is so intense, that I've blotted out the audience on the fringes, and it is only when the final act brings a roar of applause, and the dancers wave their spears in the air in acknowledgement, that I am once again reminded that this is an urban audience and I have been spectator to a staged show.

Photos:

1. Corroboree Performer (Courtesy Tourism Australia)
2. Aborigine Performer (Courtesy Tourism Australia)
3. Corroboree Dancers (Courtesy Richard Groves & Joanna Harkness)
4. Corroboree Performer (Courtesy Joy Klein)

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