Dirtsong by The Black Arm Band
Singapore International Festival of Arts
Victoria Theatre / Thursday
Dirtsong, a rich and sweeping multimedia paean to the aboriginal culture Down Under, opens in the dark, with a man quietly brushing a pile of sand to let a beam of light shine through.
It is, in a way, a fitting metaphor for the 80-minute show, which uncovers and illuminates facets of modern Australia, taking them across its vast arid plains, and deep into its gritty outback communities.
First performed in 2009, the show features The Black Arm Band, comprising mainly musicians from the indigenous groups of the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders singing and playing traditional instruments such as the didgeridoo.
And despite the language barrier (the songs are done in a mix of English and indigenous Australian tongues such as Yorta Yorta), the themes of nature, love for the land, and belonging come across clearly.
This is in part due to backdrop of evocative noir footage shot by Australian film-makers Natasha Gadd and Rhys Graham. These are overlain with text written by Australian author Alexis Wright, whose award-winning novel Carpentaria inspired the show.
The visuals of aboriginal teenagers dancing at a campfire, as well as a pair of feet stomping rhythmically on the ground, kicking up dirt and grime, are particularly memorable.
The projections add layers of context and dramatic effect to the 13 performances by singers such as Emma Donovan, Mindy Kwaten and Deline Briscoe.
Not that they needed much help - singer Donovan's deep, lusty vocals are a treat, be it on the opening number of Far Away Home or on the tribal chants on Dirtsong.
Another standout is the soulful Fred Leone, who seemed to reach deep inside himself to channel the effortless long notes on his performances.
The vocal harmonies on the group numbers are also winning, a sure sign of their chemistry.
While some of the numbers feel repetitive, there are commendable attempts to mix things up with influences from more contemporary genres like rock and jazz, although a saxophone solo sounded out of place.
At one point, the message 'Bring the country back now' flashes on screen, an apt sum-up of the show.
Through a panoply of song, film and dance, Dirtsong brings both the beauty, but also the baggage of Australia, a nation still grappling with its identity, to its audience.