Adelaide Festival review: Tracker

Australian Dance Theatre’s Tracker is a powerful evocation of the life of artistic director Daniel Riley’s great-great uncle, Alec “Tracker’ Riley, through an ambitious blend of contemporary dance, theatre, and ceremony.

Mar 11, 2023, updated Mar 11, 2023
Australian Dance Theatre's 'Tracker' is brought to life by a team of celebrated First Nations creatives. Photo: Jess Wyld / Supplied

Australian Dance Theatre's 'Tracker' is brought to life by a team of celebrated First Nations creatives. Photo: Jess Wyld / Supplied

At 58 years old, Adelaide-based Australian Dance Theatre is the oldest contemporary dance company in Australia. So Daniel Riley – a Wiradjuri man and ADT’s first Indigenous creative director – reminds us before this performance begins. Beside him stands the co-director, Yidinji and Meriam woman Rachael Maza, and as they acknowledge those who have collaborated on the project, it sinks in just how long overdue it is for a nationally significant project such as this to be originated entirely by First Nations creatives.

It seems fitting that Tracker is such a deeply personal story for Riley, one that connects to the broader, important narrative around the continued impact of European settlement on the unceded lands and people of Australia’s First Nations. His great-great uncle, Alexander “Tracker” Riley, was the first Indigenous police sergeant to work for the New South Wales police force, using his intimate knowledge of country to find lost souls and track down criminals over his 40-year career in the first half of the 20th century.

Like his great-great nephew, Tracker Riley had to navigate the complex boundaries between Wiradjuri and European cultures. It may be a family story about one individual, but as the present-day Riley says: “It is the truths, the landscapes of my family; and while it is my… personal version of a family legend, it is also my way of exploring shared cultural resilience down through the generations.”

The theatre is set up so that audience members are seated to the sides of the stage, as well in the usual front-facing seats, a circular arrangement which evokes something of ceremony, or a yarning circle, anticipating the truth-telling to come.

Gary Watling (Wiradjuri) plays a slow, sliding pedal steel guitar at the back of the set, evoking the melancholic mood of Ry Cooder’s soundtrack in the film, Paris, Texas. Semi-translucent fabric is suspended from a circular track in the fly loft, depicting a landscape of river and trees which, whether by accident or by design, looks remarkably like a shadowy face. An echo, perhaps, of the way land and spirit are inextricably interwoven.

Tracker weaves together dance, music and text. Photo: Jess Wyld / Supplied

The spoken narrative is presented entirely by Tyrel Dulvarie (Yirrganydji, Djirrabul, Kalkadoon and Umpila) in monologue throughout, and he begins the performance as Daniel. We are introduced to him as he picks his way through bush at night by bright torch light. He seems uncertain of where he is, although he is searching for a specific spot; he unfolds a map, hesitant, pointing in the direction of two rivers, only to realise it has it wrong. He seems uncertain, lost, removing his shoes, then putting them back on again in frustration, trying and failing to find connection with his ancestral land. Without roots, he says, the wind might simply blow him away; he does not notice, at first, the spirits emerging from that land to dance around him.

He begins to read from a written history he carries with him, detailing incidents that occurred during the 40 years in which his great-great uncle was active in the NSW police force; there are hints of appalling stories of injustice, of young children killed, missing, of women thrown into rivers.

It is powerful storytelling, although when Dulvarie switches character to become Tracker Riley, it is not always clear when the transition occurs; mostly it is indicated by a sweeping around of the sheer fabric curtain – at one point overlaid with another patterned with chevrons, ­evoking the authoritarian symbols on a sergeant’s jacket sleeve – or of a brightening of the footlights. It is, of course, a potent symbol of the continuity, from great-great uncle to great-great nephew and on to the newest generation, Daniel Riley’s son, to have both characters embodied in the one performer, despite being an ambitious task.

It is uncertain at first who Dulvarie’s Daniel is addressing; he seems to be thinking aloud, and only later does he look up at the audience, when it feels more like a story, told to those who need to hear it. There is a degree of telling, rather than showing, in the monologue.

Integration of narrative theatre with contemporary dance and music, especially when that narrative is composed of a single monologue told by one performer who switches between two different characters, is a tricky thing to pull off, and there are times when a particularly beat-heavy soundscape make it difficult to hear the spoken words. But this is a technicality, and given that it was the first performance in a new theatre space, it is also something that can easily be fixed.

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Despite these moments of slight confusion about when Dulvarie is Daniel and when he is Alec, the production delivers a powerful punch, conveyed with the consummate professionalism and skill of each of the performers. It is the story ­– the feeling and emotion ­– that is conveyed, and it is such a compelling one that these small confusions don’t seem to matter by the time the lights return to the auditorium, where the audience is on its feet in a standing ovation.

There is one moment when Dulvarie’s Daniel cries out, wondering how he can keep his son safe, how he can ensure his, and other First Nations stories, are told. “But how can I do it?” he cries. Riley is already doing it, for nothing is more powerfully delivered than a story performed by those who matter most in its telling. Tracker itself is evidence of it. May there be many more such stories told, and as powerfully as this.

Australian Dance Theatre is presenting Tracker at the Odeon Theatre until March 18 as part of the Adelaide Festival.

Read more Adelaide Festival coverage here on InReview.

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