To the tune of Singin' in the Rain, the Chooky dancers shuffle on stage in football jerseys and ceremonial ochre body paint, stabbing the air with their umbrellas. Then, all of a sudden, a clap of thunder sounds, the didgeridoo starts up, and the dancers arch forward and jerk their heads from side to side in a traditional rain dance of the Yolngu people of northern Australia. When Gene Kelly tap tap tapped through the puddles on a Hollywood sound stage to the same tune in the 1952 musical, he grinned from ear to ear. By contrast, the Chooky dancers remain deadpan throughout, even as they tip their heads back and twirl dreamily beneath their umbrellas. The audience hoots and chuckles at the routine; it's this type of tongue-in-cheek fusion that has earned the dance troupe a nationwide following.
Three years ago, the only venue the Chookys ever graced was their local disco on the remote Elcho Island in Australia's far north. Now they fill theatres across the country and even have a film credit, the musical Bran Nue Dae, starring the Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush, to their name. The dance troupe's trajectory is, indeed, remarkable, and the Chookys have YouTube to thank for it. In October 2007, a video hit the ether of the boys, marked up in white body paint and swathed in loincloths, dancing to Zorba the Greek. The camera was askew and the image unfocused, but within a week, the video went viral (to date it's had more than 1.5 million hits). YouTube is the world's most democratic publicity machine; only the truly bizarre, cute, funny, sick and original get notices and the rest remains buried.
The Chookys may not be in league of online stars like Gary Brolsma (of Numa Numa fame), who lip synchs to a Moldavian pop song, or the "Star Wars Kid" wielding a double-bladed lightsaber, but its not hard to see why they strike a chord with viewers. The Elcho Island dancers are comic virtuosos; their bodies turn to rubber as they channel everyone from Anthony Quinn to the minstrels of the late 1880s, offering a take on Yolngu ritual that's as mesmerising as it is jarring.
"It was the unexpectedness that touched people," says the choreographer and liaison Joshua Bond. "People tend to have stereotypical images of indigenous Australians. They expect to see things like a man standing on one leg on a rock face with a spear in his hand. But we show something completely different." By fusing modern and traditional forms, the Chookys hold a mirror to many of Elcho Island's 2,000 residents straddling an ancient indigenous culture and a contemporary western one.
The principle dancer Dhulmanawuy Garawirritja, a shy man of 24, sometimes goes by the name Lionel. He grew up on a remote outstation, where he and his family lived off the land, hunting dugongs, turtles and wild geese, and collecting wild berries. But on the weekends he would meet up with friends at the Elcho Island disco, a basketball court transformed by speakers and a ghetto blaster. In their show, the Chookys play footage of the venue pumping on a hot night to Who's Johnny. Even the little kids are bouncing up and down to techno beats. When I ask Garawirritja where he learnt to dance, he shrugs. "I've just always known," he says through an interpreter.
Garawirritja was 21 when his older cousins asked him to join the Chookys, whose name was derived from a chicken dance featured in an early line-up. The dance troupe was mentored by Dhulmanawuy's late father, Frank Garawirritja, an activist and community leader who in the early 1970s became one of the first Aboriginal musicians to tour overseas with his country and gospel band Soft Sands. It was Frank Garawirritja who first played Zorba the Greek to the Chookys and suggested that they choreograph a dance to fit the tune. Frank Garawirritja's widow, Margaret Garawirritja, recalls that the song moved the performers. "It was music that touched their hearts."
Since Frank Garawirritja's death last year to cancer, the Chookys have sought to promote his personal creed of healthy living through cultural endeavour. Arnhem Land, a territory owed by the Aborigines, of which Elcho Island is part, is one of the poorest and sickest regions in Australia; the vast majority of residents live on welfare and have a life-expectancy in their early forties. Frank Garawirritja tried, by example, to motivate his community to improve its lot, and now the Chookys are taking on his mantle.
"We are pursuing my dad's dream and spreading the story of a healthy life and healthy cultures," Dhulmanawuy says. Ngurrumilmarrmiriyu (Wrong Skin), the Chooky's first full-length show, tackles many of the social ills that plague Aboriginal communities. The story is a kind of Romeo and Juliet, about a young Aboriginal couple from opposing clans who run away together, only to be hunted down and brutally punished. Woven into the narrative is a blistering attack against Australian governments, past and present, over their treatment of Aborigines.
The dance routines help to lighten the programme. In typical Chooky style, the performers combine ritual Yolngu dances with ballet, hip-hop, Taiwanese martial arts and even Bollywood. At one point, they wrap turbans around their heads and gyrate their hips to Bhangra. Bond says that although the Chookys draw on dances used in traditional rituals, Wrong Skin is not offensive to the Yolngu people. He says that Chookys observe strict boundaries; there are Yolngu dances far more sacred than the ones included in the programme that require an initiation to study and even watch. Such dances could never be performed in a public theatre.
Nigel Jamieson, the writer and director of Wrong Skin, adds that the show is in part an exploration of the history of Arnhem Land. Since the Makassars from what is now southern Indonesia landed in Arnhem Land in the 1700s, laden with tobacco, knives and pottery, the Aborigines have absorbed outside influences. "That's exactly what the Chookys are about; taking culture and spitting it out in new forms," Jamieson says.
Capping off their seven-and-a-half week tour, the Chookys are headed back to Elcho Island. "They're all ready to go home," Bond says. "They miss their home country. When they get off the plane they'll be kissing the dirt." After a stint on Elcho Island, what's next for the Chookys? Bond pauses, then says "maybe something Chinese".