MarrugeKu(rd): bridging cultural narratives through dance

| Zhila Gholami
 + Jurrungu Ngan-ga/ Straight Talk  Video-still from Kurdish dance moment in the performance, courtesy Director Rachael Swain.

MarrugeKu(rd): bridging cultural narratives through dance

MarrugeKu(rd): Bridging Cultural Narratives Through Dance | Zhila Gholami

Marrugeku is an intercultural dance and performance Company based in Australia, established in 1994. Renowned for its innovative and interdisciplinary approach, Marrugeku integrates dance, theater, music, and multimedia to explore pertinent social and cultural issues. The Company’s commitment to Indigenous Australian perspectives and its collaborative efforts with artists from diverse cultural backgrounds underscores its dedication to fostering transformative relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Their performances chart the collective plight of marginalised people that also act to preserve Indigenous stories, dance and languages. Some of their notable performances include Cut the Sky (2015), an exploration of climate change and Indigenous resilience through dance and storytelling; Burning Daylight (2006), addresses issues of racial discrimination and cultural identity in contemporary Australia; Gudirr Gudirr (2021), focusses on the themes of displacement and connection to land and heritage, and Le Dernier Appel/The Last Cry (2018), is a potent narrative on the impact of colonisation and the resilience of Indigenous cultures.

In 2022, Marrugeku presented a powerful performance titled Jurrungu Ngan-ga/ Straight Talk in Sydney. As stated, the performance ‘confronts Australia’s shameful fixation with incarceration by connecting outrageous levels of Indigenous imprisonment to the indefinite detaining of asylum seekers.’1 Within the dramaturgy of Jurrungu Ngan-ga, moments of Kurdish dance emerge, seamlessly interwoven with Indigenous Australian dance. These instances, which I refer to as MarrugeKu(rd), amplify convergent Kurdish and Indigenous Australian expressions of resistance and resilience in the face of displacement and incarceration. The Kurdish diaspora often stems from a history of conflict and persecution, reflecting the plight of many refugees worldwide who grapple with displacement and seek sanctuary in new lands. In the context of Marrugeku’s performance, the inclusion of Kurdish cultural elements amplifies a thematic exploration of displacement and marginalisation wrought by Australia’s carceral system by connecting global (asylum seekers) and local (Indigenous Australians) artistic expressions. This integration is not incidental; it reflects a collaboration between Marrugeku and notable figures such as Kurdish-Iranian writer Behrouz Boochani and Iranian-Australian scholar and activist Omid Tofighian. Boochani, renowned for his compelling literary works and advocacy for refugee rights, brings a unique perspective to the performance. As a Kurdish-Iranian refugee, Boochani’s experience in Australia, including his time as a detainee on Manus Island, enriches the narrative of Jurrungu Ngan-ga. His background as a Kurdish individual further emphasises the intersectionality of cultural narratives within the performance and offers insight to the complexities of identity and belonging not only in contemporary Australia but around the world. In this performance, both Boochani and Tofighian served as cultural dramaturgs.2 Through Boochani’s collaboration with Marrugeku, Jurrungu Ngan-ga creates a performance space that connects and amplifies marginalised voices and fosters dialogue on issues of social justice and human rights.

 + Jurrungu Ngan-ga/ Straight Talk  Video-still from Kurdish dance moment in the performance, courtesy Director Rachael Swain.

In my correspondence with Dr. Rachael Swain, the director of the project, she provided insights into the origins of the Kurdish dance featured in the work, as well as the training sessions conducted by Marrugeku’s dancers in collaboration with members of the Kurdish arts community in Sydney. Dr. Swain highlighted that these sessions were facilitated following introductions and instructions from Boochani, who was residing in PNG at the time. The instructors involved in these sessions, as explained by Dr. Swain, included Rasoul Ghafournejad, Asrin Rajabi, Roza Germian, with the addition of Mostafa Azimitabar. She noted that these sessions took place in November 2022, during which the Western Australia border remained closed. Consequently, half of the Marrugeku company convened in their primary cultural hub in Broome, while the remainder joined remotely from Sydney, necessitating video-based collaboration.

In their compelling article on Jurrungu Ngan-ga, Tofighian et al. (2022) delineate pivotal scenes, including the prologue, scene 11, and scene 13.3 The prologue features Emmanuel James Brown, an actor and dancer from the Kimberley region, accompanied by Farhad Bandesh’s distant voice singing in a Kurdish vocal tradition, recorded during his detention on Manus Island. As Tofighian et al. assert, ‘the movements of EJB and the voices of Farhad reach across that which separates Manus and Australia, collapsing the border, or infiltrating it. Together they render it impotent’, highlighting the profound impact of their artistry in transcending barriers.4 In scene 11, Say the Name, Bhenji, a Filipinx-Australian artist, stands behind a backlit, semi-transparent wall with fellow performers. As a security camera scans the stage, projecting its feed onto the mesh, Bhenji poses and addresses the camera operator, narrating the moments preceding a vogue ball. She recalls learning about the tragic death of Yolanda Jourdan, a trans icon.5 In scene 13, Resistance of the Bodily Archive, Bhenji is joined by Feras Shaheen and Issa El Assad (both Palestinian), who fuse debka dance and house dance amidst the cheers of the fellow dancers. Chandler Connell and EJB then take their place, symbolically stamping their feet into the platform mesh as if reclaiming their homeland’ soil. This scene, described by Tofighian et al., ‘feeds on the emotional energy of the sudden cultural dramaturgical pivot in the work as it swivels from intense sadness and anger to joy and resilience’.6 As the security camera continues to surveil, the atmosphere resembles an uprising in a prison. Chandler Connell and EJB’s performance echoes a recent revolt in a juvenile detention center, where Indigenous inmates protested by dancing their traditional dance on a rooftop. Tofighian et al. end the description of this scene by ‘the unmistakable rhythms of Torres Strait Island dance performed by Ses Bero and Luck Currie-Richardson take over followed by Disco, Martha Graeme’s slow-motion modern dance moves, and a Filipino prices dance led by Bhenji, all shared by the performers from their own “bodily archive”’.7 

The article, however, overlooks a crucial aspect of the performance, when all of the performers come together to engage in a Kurdish dance sequence, despite the absence of Kurdish performers on stage. Several of the performers, form a semi-circle, whilst two performers take center stage, gracefully twirling a piece of fabric known as Chopi in Kurdish dance. This fabric, traditionally wielded by the lead dancers, symbolises their role as the focal point of the movement. Prior to the emergence of the Kurdish dance sequence, individual or paired dances are performed that gradually lead up to the collective Kurdish dance. During this moment, the performers unite, holding hands and moving in harmony, with two dancers captivating the audience’s attention with their graceful movements. The emotional and tonal transition from fear, sadness, and anger to a sense of joy and resilience begins to mount just before the Kurdish dance. The semi-circle of performers and the two dancers wielding the Chopi collectively builds on this momentum and serves as the climax of the performance; a powerful expression of unity, joy and hope, as well as cultural celebration.

Kurdish dance holds profound cultural and political significance within the Kurdish context, serving as both a form of expression and resistance against oppression. Embedded in the fabric of everyday life, Kurdish dance transcends entertainment, embodying the collective experience, struggle, and resilience of the Kurdish people. Across diverse Kurdish regions, various forms of dance exist, each reflects unique regional traditions and histories. However, a common thread runs through these dances: the communal aspect, symbolised by men and women holding each other’s hands, forming circles or semi-circles, and standing shoulder to shoulder. These dances are accompanied by Kurdish melodies that encompass not only themes of joy, love, and affection, but also evoke sentiments of devotion to the homeland, admiration for its beauty and language. They occasionally touch upon social and political issues, including women’s rights and gender equality, advocating for inclusivity and empowerment of all genders through rhythmic movements and expressions.  Consider the renowned Kurdish male singer Naser Razazi. In his widely acclaimed song Mina Khanem (1995), often played during Kurdish dances, Razazi interjects a rap segment in the middle of the song, challenging patriarchal norms and injustices against women. Through his lyrics, he urges Kurdish women to stand against inequality, educate themselves, and claim their rights. In another song called Balanja, which is also frequently played during Kurdish dances, lyrics include verses condemning religious radicalism and addresses women’s rights.

 + Jurrungu Ngan-ga/ Straight Talk  Video-still from Kurdish dance moment in the performance, courtesy Director Rachael Swain.

Moreover, Kurdish dance is deeply intertwined with the political landscape, serving as a potent tool of resistance against oppression and injustice. Throughout history, Kurds have faced cultural and political oppression, with attempts to erase or marginalise their identity and heritage. In response, Kurdish dance emerges as a defiant assertion of cultural existence and as an act of pride and solidarity in the face of adversity. Despite challenges and obstacles, Kurdish dance perseveres as a testament to the resilience and strength of the Kurdish people, a living expression of their indomitable spirit and unwavering commitment to their cultural heritage. In diaspora, Kurdish communities continue to nurture and celebrate their dance traditions, creating spaces of belonging and cultural continuity amidst the complexities of displacement and adaptation.

By fusing various cultural dances, including Kurdish, Fillipinx and Indigenous dance, Marrugeku’s performance presents a profound convergence of cultural narratives and shared experiences of marginalisation and resistance. By intertwining these diverse yet interconnected forms of expressions, Marrugeku creates a space of dialogue and solidarity between Kurdish, Indigenous Australian, and other marginalised communities in Australia. This collaboration not only celebrates the beauty and diversity of cultural expressions drawn together by Marrugeku but also highlights common struggles for self-determination and recognition faced by these communities. Jurrungu Ngan-ga/ Straight Talk is testament to the power of dance and art to share traditions, connect communities facing similar plights, and serves as a space of cultural continuity and connectivity. Significantly, given the socio-political challenges facing the Kurds, including regional attempts to erase their identity, culture, and heritage, along with a global lack of recognition, Boochani’s endeavor to introduce and integrate Kurdish dance into Marrugeku’s performance, is an act of cultural defiance against systemic oppressive and suppressive forces. As the performers wave the Chopi and others dance around them, Marrugeku create not just a platform for politics but show that art as a collective act is inherently political. 



2. For more information see and

3. Tofighian, Omid, Rachael Swain, Dalisa Pigram, Bhenji Ra, Chandler Connell, Emmanuel James Brown, Feras Shaheen, Issa El Assaad, Luke Currie-Richardson, Miranda Wheen, and et al. 2022. "Performance as Intersectional Resistance: Power, Polyphony and Processes of Abolition" Humanities 11, no. 1: 28.

4. Ibid. 4.

5. Ibid. 9-10.

6. Ibid. 15.

7. Ibid.

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