The towering, protective cage of stark, white whale bones rises into view against the setting sun as the audience wends its way towards it across the sand at Pathawilyangga (Glenelg) Beach – a breathtaking sight with an aura of timelessness that somehow manages to diminish the modernity of the hotels and high-rises of the surrounding landscape.

As night falls, a strong male voice rises in song and Jandai language while smoke curls and billows beneath the whale bones, and immediately we are immersed in the spirit of ceremony in a Welcome to Country.

A bassline thrums and reverberates as dancers, musicians and performers emerge from the smoke in exquisite costumes designed by Jennifer Irwin in colours and forms so elemental they almost seem to have risen from sand and ocean.

The set, designed by Jacob Nash and reminiscent of a whale skeleton, makes a striking sight as the sun sets agains the ocean. Photo: Roy VanDerVegt

Director Stephen Page, who left the helm of Bangarra Dance Theatre last year, co-wrote what he calls this “generational, totemic, human creation story, told through song, dance, story and language” with Alana Valentine (who was also the co-librettist for previous Festival works Watershed: The Death of Dr Duncan and Wudjang: Not the Past).

Especially commissioned for the Adelaide Festival, Baleen Moondjan allows the audience to witness Gindara (Elaine Crombie), a Moondjan Elder, sharing cultural knowledge and the spirit of her totemic relationship with the baleen whale with her granddaughter, Nundigili (Zipporah Corser-Anu), in the lead-up to a powerful scene in which the great whale is called in to catch Granny Gindara’s spirit and carry it out to sea.

Told in 11 acts in a mixture of English and Jandai (the digital program has a helpful glossary), the story born from knowledge passed to Page by his Nunukul/Nughi mother along the maternal line unfolds through an interweaving of ceremony, dance, spoken word and song – both traditional and contemporary.

The show is performed with an ensemble of six dancers. Photo: Roy VanDerVegt

Dancers Alexander Abbot, Rika Hamaguchi, Gusta Mara, Beau Dean Riley Smith, Nicola Sabatino and Glory Tuohy-Daniell mimic motions of waves, of winds, while Damien Cooper’s lighting changes cast Jacob Nash’s extraordinary set design with the mood and spirit that befits each act.

The narrator (DOBBY) relates the story, and the magnificent voices of Crombie and Corser-Anu rise in song above the sound of rushing waves and wind, so powerful they even conquer the sound of a low-flying helicopter. For those sitting further back, a large screen right of stage shows the action in close-up.

Lighting helps evoke the mood and spirit of Baleen Moondjan. Photo: Roy VanDerVegt

There is an engaging variation in musical styles, from traditional song in language to contemporary ballad-like songs of yearning, power and melancholy, with live musicians (drums and bass) enhancing the performance. We get the sense that this is not so much a spectacle staged for the audience as an invocation to the ocean, with the performers frequently facing not towards the great crowd seated on rugs and low chairs on the beach, but towards the open waves lit up in the final scene in otherworldly light.

This is one of those performances that will stick in a lifetime of memories – and it’s an important tale to witness. Just make sure to bring plenty of warm clothes so the cold wind doesn’t detract from the experience.

Baleen Moondjan is presented as part of the Adelaide Festival at Pathawilyangga (Glenelg) Beach until March 2.

Read InReview‘s interview with Stephen page about Baleen Moondjan here, and more 2024 Adelaide Festival coverage here.

A drone image from the opening night of Baleen Moondjan. Photo: supplied

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