Aeroplane Dance: Whose Story?

In the early 1990s, Trevor Graham with the Yanyuwa people at Borraloola created a film called Aeroplane Dance (1994) (known by Yanyuwa speakers as Ka-Wayawayama). It begins with the line that this is “the story of one American Bomber who created a legend” – amplified by the first end credit stating that it is based upon the official report of Staff Sergeant Grady Gaston US Air Force May 1943. [1] Websites selling the film describe it as dramatising the struggle of a group of Americans “to survive in an unfamiliar land they considered hostile and desolate”. [2] Reviews that acknowledge the Yanyuwa part of the story frame it as an “exemplary work showing how the modern world has encroached on ancient ways, changing them forever” and as “a film-story of an event, a people, and a culture in transition”. [3] The latter quote may exemplify the intentions of the film’s director and scriptwriter. But the project was a Yanyuwa initiative to document one of their performance genres. In the gap between the community’s desires and the outcome, the final product reveals the embedded narratives that can inform and shape cross-cultural collaboration.

In general, the framing of Indigenous performance offers a clear example of Emmanuel Levinas’ notion of the “violence of categories”. [4] In the early decades of settlement, Aboriginal performance was seen purely as noise or an entertainment practice. [5] These were performances that European colonists did not seek to understand; as William Westgarth stated in his Australia Felix (1848), “the exact meaning of their famous corrobboree [sic] or native dance, beyond mere exercise and pastime, has not yet been properly ascertained”. [6] With the rise of Social Darwinism in the 19th Century, Aboriginal performance was recategorised as ritual and therefore as a prototypical form of theatre. [7] Within this conceptual framework (as seen in, for instance, the work of Emile Durkheim), Aboriginal performance can only be recognised as ritual or ceremony; in this view, “rituals and ‘dramatic performances’ embed and reproduce the cultural system in collective and individual actions”. [8] Everything else is categorised as oral history or as in some way contaminated and inauthentic. In order for an Aboriginal performance to be authentic within this system of categories, it must be either ceremony or oral history.

Traces of this framing continue to dominate the reception of Indigenous performance. Such a preconception determined and limited the creation of Aeroplane Dance. Our interrogation of the competing discourses that shape any cultural production is from a cross-disciplinary position that brings together two researchers, one from performance studies (Casey) and one from anthropology (Bradley), the latter having observed Yanyuwa performances for thirty years and who worked on Aeroplane Dance as an interpreter and art designer.

The Yanyuwa and Film

The Yanyuwa are Salt Water people, li-Anthawirriyarra, a people whose spiritual and cultural heritage comes from the sea. Originally largely from the Sir Edward Pellew Islands in the Gulf of Carpentaria, Northern Territory, they are now settled around the Borroloola region. The Yanyuwa offer an extraordinary example of a people who have recognised and utilised the value of modern technology for their campaigns for land rights and cultural maintenance. Over the last thirty years, members of the Yanyuwa communities have been actively engaged in making a number of films that have engaged with debates, educated urban audiences about their claims and issues, and created a dynamic keeping place for cultural knowledge. The films made for non-Yanyuwa audiences have extensive narratives in Yanyuwa, with subtitles. Others made for the community are totally in Yanyuwa. The films include Two Laws (1981) (Kanymarda Yuwa), Journey East (1989) (Buwarrala Akarriya) and Aeroplane Dance. Recently Yanyuwa elders have collaborated with Bradley on a project to animate some of their Law as taught in important stories and songlines, Wirdiwalangu Mayanku kulu Anthawirryarra / The Law that Comes from the Land, Islands and the Sea (2009) and The Dreamings of Saltwater Country (2010). 

Aeroplane Dance was a community initiative to celebrate and document a historical performance practice for entertainment and offer non-Yanyuwa audiences a bridge to a richer understanding of their culture. Highly developed performance traditions and practices are a central and important element within and across Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander cultures and life. [9] These practices have been an important forum of expression for a vast range of activities, from teaching to settling legal disputes. Historically, performance events of song, dance, mime and story can be divided into events associated with ceremonies that are sacred and private; and events associated with entertainment and social negotiations that are public. These performances can be based on the adventures of ancestral beings; magic and power; totemic songs; hunting; dramatic songs and epics; fighting songs; topical events and everyday life. Within Aboriginal cultures, there is no clear division between the sacred and ordinary stories. Rather, sacredness is a matter of degree.

Within this continuum of connection to the sacred, Indigenous performance can be divided into three major types: ceremony, public performances based on Dreaming stories, and performances based on topical issues for entertainment. These latter performances for entertainment, although they include performances that can be understood as acting as a form of oral history, are all often put under the general heading of oral history. This category effectively erases many performances for entertainment. The Aeroplane Dance is an instance of what in Yanyuwa is called walaba, an important genre of performance for entertainment. An earlier dance from the Yanyuwa, within the same historical practice as the Aeroplane Dance, is the Nanny Goat Song. This piece which includes song, dance and mime was based on the first exposure to goats and catching goats. There is a level on which this is part of the history of colonial encounter; however, to erase the intended place of these performances as entertainment and label them simply as oral history not only negates their social and artistic role/meaning, but sets up irrelevant terms for judgement.

Amongst the Yanyuwa, performance texts for entertainment are usually self-compositions that are made by men and women. There are genres of these performances that are not related to Dreamings or connected to the spiritual beyond the general Law. These song compositions are sometimes created with an associated dance, or sometimes a dance is created later to go with them. The compositions can range from very short (four or five lines) to a song series with multiple dances associated. They are composed in everyday language but the practice is to use words sparsely as evocative poetry. The stories often offer a keyhole view into social events, runaway lovers, broken hearts, celebration of country, celebration of hunting prowess – anything that goes wrong that can be turned into a story for entertainment or, as it is known in Yanyuwa, nguyulnguyul, and in Yanyuwa Aboriginal English, ‘fun’. [10]

History of the Dance

Performances based on topical or historical events that are created for entertainment were performed for intra- and inter- community gatherings and for cross cultural performances. [11] The performances include the alternating of a number of elements within the framework of the performance; these elements include story telling through narrative, poetry, dance, mime, song, music and visual art. Historically operating within a paradigm of practice in many ways like European theatre practices, historically, there were performers, musicians, dancers and actors, writers, choreographers, people responsible for body design or costume, props and set; and a manager responsible for organising the performance and rehearsal practices. There was a shared aesthetic scale. There were (and are) high expectations about the quality of the performances. Everyone can sing, dance, paint, and tell stories but the audience expects these arts to be performed well and historically an unsuccessful performance has a number of consequences including public criticism and a loss of social and political prestige.

Performances occur in defined and carefully chosen areas. Performance grounds were often marked out and landscaped, with a flattened performance space, off-stage areas that were hidden by trees or other physical features, and often built up areas for the audience. The physical environment, including the light and shadows created by the moon and the huge campfires, are used as part of and to enhance the performance. Trees and objects are used as props and sets. These practices all directly parallel western theatre practices both classical and contemporary. The performance space is equivalent to classical Greek amphitheatres and twentieth and twenty-first century practices of using found spaces and site specific venues. The copy right practices are again both different and equivalent. Topical and historical performances are created and owned by individuals who teach and direct others in the required elements of the performance, song, dance and story.

These performances were toured and traded between communities. Examples that have been documented since European settlement include many new corroborees created around the interactions between the communities and observations of the settlers. The Nunggubuyu people of Numbulwar in southern eastern Arnhem Land have a performance based in song, story and dance that tells of early encounters with Macassan traders, an Indonesian people from the island of Sulawesi. The Macassans had trading arrangements with the Indigenous people of the northern coasts of Australia from about 400 years before European settlement in 1788, which continued until it was outlawed in the early twentieth century. The performance called the Jama Jama (Red Flag Dance) was created after some members of the Nunggubuyu people went travelling with the Macassans in their boats. On their return, they created performances based on their adventures. [12]

The Aeroplane Dance is related to this type of performance. The performance text was created during WWII. The war had a major impact on Indigenous communities. Sections of the north were bombed, killing civilians, and large areas were used for military bases and airstrips. Both the mainland and islands were attacked. The members of the Tiwi community on Melville Island captured the first Japanese prisoner of war on Australian soil. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people joined the military, and local communities were part of the land defences; they had varied contact with Australian, Japanese, and Americans military and planes. A range of performances for entertainment were created about planes and events from these experiences.

On 1 December 1942, a US bomber called Little Eva was returning to base after a raid over New Guinea. The plane hit a tropical storm and crashed at Moonlight Creek in the Southeast corner of the Gulf of Carpentaria. There was a massive aerial search and the Yanyuwa people participated in the ground search for Little Eva and her crew. Most of the crew survived the crash but left the plane. Two walked east to Burketown and raised the alarm. Another four walked to the coast travelling 300 miles to the west. The Yanyuwa were called on to find the plane, which they did quickly. Twenty weeks later, long after the searches had ceased, they found the lone survivor. In the stories told about the event, elders still shake their heads about the crew’s foolishness in walking away from the wreck of the plane.

Aboriginal performance texts, such as the Aeroplane Dance, are usually labelled dance or song according to the interests of the academics who document or categorise them. These performances are not what is understood when someone speaks of European dance. They are performances based on dance, word, song and mime. In the case of the Aeroplane Dance, puppetry is also included. It is a series of songs, dances and mime, created by Frank Karrijiji, that enact a narrative composed at the time of the searches. [13] The dance originally extended over a week and was performed whenever people wished. Songs and dances present the plane airborne and finally crashing; they then describe the Yanyuwa experience and response to the aerial search, the ground search and war.

Karrijiji’s creation of the performance included a number of props such as headdresses representing bi-planes and steering wheels representing pilots. The central feature of the performance mise en scène is a life-size ‘plane’ on an axis of east and west because in the song the plane’s nose faces west and tail east. This plane consists of two sets of intersecting walls. Two walls run east-west as the body of the plane, these intersect with another two walls going north-south which are the wings. Each wall is about one and a half to two metres tall, made of rails between forked sticks then hung thickly with boughs cut from gum trees. The result is two intersecting passages of boughed walls, so as you walk into the plane, you walk in through its nose, along a corridor of bushy walls, to the middle where there are another two corridors going off north and south as the wing.

In the first moments of the performance all the male dancers go inside the bough shade. They hang a blanket up on the front, marking the front of the plane. Then they start to sing. After they start, the singers and musicians made up of men and women seated about ten metres away also start to sing. Inside the plane, the men start making a noise in unison like an engine representing the plane flying; then they shake the plane as if it were flying in a storm. The first people who dance out are the senior men who own the dance, or those in the lineage who are related to the senior men. The blanket is lifted and the men dance out, singly or in pairs from the central body of the plane. Then those in the wings exit dancing. Those in the wings are any other male who has been recruited to dance, so there might be a mixture of children, adolescents and old men. They all dance out in long lines and meet in the middle, continuing to dance as a group.

There are a series of sequences of mime, dance and puppetry, as the dancers re-enact the aerial search for Little Eva and the airmen, as well as the ground searches. In one sequence, the performers have bi-plane headdresses representing tiger moths and leaves tied around their knees, representing the tops of trees. Accompanying the dance are verses about the planes. In another sequence there is a verse that refers to the planes dipping their wings, and being told to stop searching. The performance at this point includes a mime sequence where the performers, representing the ground searchers, all wave their hats to the planes. In the latter verse all the dancers congregate on the dance ground, carrying hats and they dance with hats waving in the air. Then there are solo dances of the best dancers, the senior dancers with steering wheel props. Historically, this type of dance for entertainment would last until two or three in the morning.

Karrijiji began creating the dance when he was part of the ground search. In the verses he talks about walking. He talks about travelling, about being in clan country that is associated with him. He talks about talking to one of his near relatives about walking. The verses also engage with the bigger picture of the war and why they are walking. There are verses about planes travelling at night and planes fighting in the north – probably the bombing of Darwin. There are verses about planes arriving home safely. It is a fictional narrative about planes, the war and its presence in the lives of the Yanyuwa. There is nothing in the narrative about the lost Americans. Before Sergeant Grady Gaston, the sole survivor of the westbound group was found, the dance was created and shared with others at a large gathering for ceremony that brought together Yanyuwa, Garrwa and Marra peoples. The dance was so well received that Karrijiji gave authority for the dance to be performed within and by all the communities present.

A Problematic Project

The dance was performed as part of the repertoire of performances for entertainment for decades after WWII. By the 1980s, when many of the original owners of the dance had died, it had not been performed for many years. Bradley was present in the early 1980s when some of the songs were performed one evening. After this impromptu performance, interest in dance was revived. In 1988, the dance was performed and filmed as part of a training program for adolescents between the ages of 15 and 18, to learn how to use still and video cameras. The only difference in the performance was a minor change in the body decorations. As in the original version, the bodies of the dancers were outlined first in white ochre, then in red ochre, but the further outline in white feathers was changed. Nowadays as part of protection of the birds, cottonwool is used instead of feathers in body decorations calling for small white feathers. An invited audience of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people from the area were invited to the final performance; it was a great success. There were many men and women, Yanyuwa and Garrwa and white Australians, who were alive when the events being celebrated in the dance occurred. The white Australians in the audience were particularly enthusiastic because the dance focused on common history.

The Yanyuwa people, including the surviving owners of the dance, recognised the value of this exchange and sought to make a film of the dance that would reach a wider audience than the community DVD. They submitted a proposal to Film Australia. The end result of this process was that Trevor Graham agreed to produce and direct a film of the dance. After this collaboration, Graham developed an impressive record of documentary films that have contributed to cross cultural understanding. These include major documentary productions with Indigenous Australian people and communities. As a multi-award winning writer director his credits include Mabo – Life of an Island Man (1997), Mabo – The Native Title Revolution CD-Rom (2001) and Lonely Boy Richard (2003).

The last senior male owner of the Aeroplane Dance was still alive when the film was first in the planning process. He died just before the crew arrived. On his death bed, he asked that the community bring the dance out into the open and perform it, not to hedge it with the restrictions of death. At his wish, the community went ahead with the project. The terms of this collaboration were different from previous endeavours. The process was led by the white filmmaker, with some consultation with the community. Once Graham was on board he brought in Jan Wositzky as scriptwriter. Graham has explained (at the U-matic to YouTube Conference) that he envisaged the story in the style of a B grade American war movie. As part of this approach, in pre-production they located and contacted Gaston in Alabama, inviting him to participate. There were elders still living who had been part of his rescue; they were interested in his participation. When Gaston decided not to be take part, the filmmakers considered cancelling the production. The community was not interested in that. Graham then decided to focus on a dramatised re-enactment of the American airmen who went west.

As Graham’s interest was in the Americans’ story and the dance did not deal with that aspect. So he asked the family, who could claim kin connection and therefore some ownership of the dance, to compose some extra songs about the Americans. They refused. Karrijiji created the performance and they would not support that type of reinscription. The review that styled Aeroplane Dance as “a film-story of an event, a people and a culture in transition” indicates the evident focus of Graham’s project. But the event that the filmmaker chose to focus on is at best tangential to the dance itself. His focus is on the dramatised re-enactment of the four American crewmen who travelled west. This is shot in black and white and extended with stock footage of World War II planes. Most of the interviews with Indigenous elders are about the search for the lost crewmen. The verses used from the dance could be understood as referring to this dramatic focus. The preparations for the dance are interspersed with discussion of loss of language and change and the airmen’s story. This is then followed by a few brief glimpses of the dance and the same verses as used earlier, like a teaser that goes nowhere. The dance is simply, for the most part, not there – appearing largely as a few seconds here and there, most effectively as double exposures within the storm sequences. The dramatised re-enactment of the Americans is amplified with repeated images of maps of the area marking the journey and location of the airmen. The main focus on contemporary Yanyuwa life, apart from the struggle with cultural maintenance, is the repeated comparison Yanyuwa knowledge of available food and the Americans’ ignorance of it.

Filming dance performance has often proved difficult. The style of dancing in Aeroplane Dance is called malambi in Yanyuwa, which means to spread one’s arms out wide and hit the earth hard with one’s feet. It is a stomping style of dance; not particularly vigorous, but within that sameness there are unique characteristics. There is often a very fierce type of dancing as used in the sequences with the steering wheels. It is not a simple style, even if it looks simple. It has great subtlety. Though experts make it look easy, it is actually hard to dance, requiring great physical/rhythmical control and strength from the head down to the pelvis. Amongst the Yanyuwa, such stomping is standard in male fun dances (women have a few more styles). In the Aeroplane Dance, the style is primarily based on outstretched arms combined with a double step. In an interview where Graham was questioned about the lack of the dance, he acknowledged the lack of preparation for filming it. They had planned to film, using one camera, the dance in situ on the last night of its performance. This was, at least in part, because the cost of filming the dramatised scenes limited the resources available for engaging with the dance. [14] This approach to the dance is logical if the focus of the film is an oral history about American airmen.

The crash and search marked a moment in time that contributed to the inspiration for the composing of the piece. Graham is not alone in framing the Aeroplane Dance as an oral history about the American plane crash. Around the same time that the film was made the words of the songs that are part of the performance were published under the title Little Eva at Moonlight Creek (1994). [15] We would suggest that the licence to retitle the work, like the request that the family write verses to make the work fit the conception that Aeroplane Dance was about the lost Americans, are part of the same confusion or slippage between the dance for entertainment and the oral histories. The Aeroplane Dance, on the other hand is a creative response to a different event, a very large event, that was having impact on the Yanyuwa and other Aboriginal and Islander peoples in the north of Australia at the time – WWII. Because of this slippage, Aeroplane Dance becomes an example of reading the Australian experience of WWII through the refracted gaze of American culture. The Aeroplane Dance as created by Karrijiji contributes a creative artist’s perspective to the hidden history of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians’ experience of the war.

Conclusion: Listening, Seeing and Understanding

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander public performances for entertainment have largely been ignored within scholarship. [16] There has been growing recognition over the past decade of the gaps in knowledge resulting from the almost exclusive focus on rituals – especially those that are secret and sacred and associated with ceremony, within writings on Indigenous performance traditions. [17] An outcome of this shift in focus is that researchers in anthropology and musicology (and even more recently within performance studies) who are examining Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance and music “have begun to explore an increasingly disparate range of performance genres put on display for the public gaze”. [18] However, the focus is generally on contemporary practices of song or dance rather than being focused on the overall event of the performance or the history of such events. [19] The main contribution to an examination of these performances has been within Aboriginal history through examination of specific examples in isolation. [20]

There is a level at which all performance in all cultures are documents of social history. However, this is not the same as being an oral history. In order to have effective cross-cultural exchange there needs to be a level of active listening, seeing and understanding. For Anne Marshall, the challenge is to find ways to take into account the different ontologies/epistemologies and their resulting “implicit knowledge contained in different performance expressions and understandings of the world”. [21] The protocols for Indigenous control and cultural respect have created a new and presumably improved context for collaborations with filmmakers. However, this is only part of the process of engaging with and countering pre-existing narratives that are treated as truths about Aboriginal culture.

[1] See Peter Gurge, “Ka-Wayawayaama / Aeroplane Dance – A film by Trevor Graham”, http://www.peterguerge.de/peterguerge.htm?/aeroplanedance/aeroplanedance.htm (accessed 20/9/2010). 
[2] For examples see “Aeroplane Dance”, http://icarusfilms.com/new99/aeroplan.html (accessed 12/10/2010); http://therai.org.uk/fs/film-sales/aeroplane-dance/ (accessed 12/10/2010).
[3] Gurge, “Ka-Wayawayaama”.
[4] Emmanuel Levinas, “Transcending Words: Concerning Word-erasing,” Yale French Studies, vol. 81 (1992): p.148. 
[5] For example see David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, Vol 2, (London: T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1802), p.543.
[6] William Westgarth, Australia Felix, or A Historical and Descriptive Account of the Settlement of Port Phillip, New South Wales: Including Full Particulars of the Manners and Customs of the Aboriginal Natives (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1848), p.78. 
[7] For further discussion of this see Maryrose Casey, “Theatre or Corroboree, What’s in a Name? Framing Indigenous Australian Nineteenth Century Commercial Performance Practices” in Creating White Australia, eds. Jane Carey and Claire McLisky, (Sydney: University of Sydney, 2009), pp.117-132.
[8] Jeffrey Alexander, & Jason L. Mast, “Introduction”, in Social Performance Symbolic Action, Cultural Pragmatics, and Ritual, eds. Jeffrey C. Alexander Bernhard Giesen & Jason L. Mast, (Cambridge: Cambridge: 2006), p.8.
[9] See Casey passim.
[10] Nguyulnguyul, which is glossed in the article as fun, also carries more complex meanings and resonances, especially in relation to composition and performance that speak to the achievements within the creative endeavour. The word denotes the achievement of ideals, the performer and the composer creating something that draws people to want to hear and participate in it. The term can be associated with ideals of excellence in creative endeavour at all levels. Thus a person who creates performances that are nguyulnguyul is also described as being ngirriki, which is glossed as ‘tricky’, but a thicker description would carry the weight of a person who transcends normal accomplishments. Aeroplane Dance is described as nguyulnguyul and Frank Karrijiji is often described as ngirriki.
[11] See Casey, passim
[12] See Yilila Jama Jama Red Flag (Yilila, 2005); also see www.redflagdancers.com.au
[13] The information about the dance is drawn from John Bradley’s notes and observations over a thirty year period; Ron Rickett Murrundu, personal interview with John Bradley, Borroloola, 1988; and Jean Kirton, recorded statement, Doomadgee Mission 1967.
[14] Gurge, “Ka-Wayawayaama”.
[15] Martin Duwell and RMW Dixon eds, Little Eva at Moonlight Creek and Other Aboriginal Song Poems (St. Lucia, Qld.: University of Queensland Press, 1994).
[16] Casey, passim.
[17] For examples see: Franca Tamisari, “Writing Close to Dance: Expression in Yolgnu Performance”, in Aesthetics and Experience in Music performance, eds. Elizabeth MacKinlay, Denis Collins and Samantha Owens, (Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2005), pp.165-190. 
[18] Fiona McGowan and Karl Neuenfeldt, eds, Landscapes of Indigenous Performance, (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2005). 
[19] For examples see: Martin Nakata and Karl Neuenfeldt, “From ‘Navajo’ to ‘Taba Naba’, Landscapes of Indigenous Performance, eds. Fiona Magowan & Karl Neuenfeldt (Canberra: ASP, 2005), 12-28; Peter Toner, “Home Among the Gum Trees”, Landscapes of Indigenous Performance, eds Fiona Magowan & Karl Neuenfeldt (Canberra: ASP, 2005), pp.29-45. 
[20] For example Barry McDonald, “Evidence of Four New England Corroboree Songs Indicating Aboriginal Responses to European Invasion”, Aboriginal History 20 (1996): pp.176-94.
[21] Anne Marshall, Ngapartji-ngapartji: Ecologies of Performance in Central Australia: Comparative Studies in the Ecologies of Aboriginal-Australian and European-Australian Performances, PhD Thesis, University of Western Sydney, 2001, pp.92-93.

About the Author

Maryrose Casey and John Bradley

About the Authors


Maryrose Casey

Maryrose Casey is a senior lecturer at Monash University in the Centre for Theatre and Performance. She has published widely in journals and anthologies on Indigenous Australian theatre and performance focusing on aspects of cross-cultural communication. Her publications include: Creating Frames: Contemporary Indigenous Theatre (University of Queensland Press, 2004); The Doll’s Revolution (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2005) with Rachel Fensham and Denise Varney; Transnational Whiteness Matters (Rowman Littlefield, 2008) co-edited with Aileen Moreton-Robinson and Fiona Nicoll.

John Bradley

Associate Professor John Bradley is Director of the Centre for Indigenous Studies at Monash University. He is presently rewriting the Yanyuwa encyclopaedic dictionary, a work that has spanned 30 years. He has played key roles in Indigenous filmmaking at Borroloola. His work as a linguist has been documented in The Language Man (ABC-TV, 2008), and he has an ongoing involvement in the Yanyuwa animation project.View all posts by Maryrose Casey and John Bradley →