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Folding chairs are arranged in three neat semicircles around the tiny makeshift stage--a slightly raised platform with a jungle backdrop, all purple, green, brown, and gray tendrils, vines, and leaves. Big rocks have been painted onto two folding screens that are placed off to each side, and one suspiciously square boulder rests in lone splendor just to the right of center stage.

It's not easy to create the illusion of a rain forest in McCormick Place, where the ground is carpeted, the surfaces are laminated, any vistas are photographic, and the light is fluorescent. This is the Incentive Travel and Meeting Executive Show, and the Australian Tourist Commission is presenting for the conventioneers' delectation a half-hour show by Tjapukai (pronounced japu-guy) Dance Theatre, a professional company of aborigines from the northeast coast of Australia.

Over the intercom is a sound that could be someone playing a rubber band, but playing it so elaborately that the vibrations are almost orchestral. A man in a suit and sneakers plunks himself down in a folding chair and announces to the woman on his left, "I'm here to hear the didgeridoo--it's all done in the guy's stomach, you know. It's only a hollow reed."

A woman says, "Look, there's an aborigine--see? Over there." I get a glimpse of long curly hair and chocolate skin with white markings, but then the man disappears into a sea of suits, briefcases, high heels, nylons, and jewelry.

Soon after, the same man takes the stage. Without any kind of introduction he kneels and begins blowing into a long tube; it's maybe three or four feet in length, about three inches across, and it's painted in bands of brown, beige, and gray. Clearly this is the instrument we heard over the intercom--a didgeridoo--and seeing it played solves at least one mystery for me: I'd wondered whether the sound had been electronically manipulated to create the impressions of static, feedback, and recorded train whistles. It hadn't.

The man's chest and back move like a bellows to produce the music's main feature--a rhythmic background hum. The tendons stand out on his neck when he brings forth the music's second strain, a kind of singing to accompany the vibrations. He wears nothing but a headband and a red loincloth hung with what look like ropes made of hemp, and chalky white lines and spots cover his body with beadlike and feathery patterns.

Suddenly we hear a new sound, a high-pitched, brittle-sounding percussion, and six more men in loincloths appear, beating wooden implements together and pounding their feet to the music. They sing, "I feel strong / I can catch food." Each dancer has a laminated identification badge hanging from his loincloth; most of the conventioneers are wearing theirs on their lapels. The badges bounce to the beat.

The music stops, six of the men seat themselves, and the seventh steps to the microphone and explains the different totems painted on the dancers' chests: a snake, a platypus, a possum. The paint itself is made of crushed rocks, ocher, and other natural materials. He explains how to make a didgeridoo (find a slender hollow tree, flush out the mud and clay from its center, and scrape off all the branches and twigs), then explains how to play one: you vibrate the lips--like a kid being a motorboat--and blow out through your mouth while you suck air in through your nose. "Try and have a go at it, eh?" he says slyly.

After a little discourse on boomerangs, all seven get up to dance again: a loose-hipped pounding of the feet with bent legs, the knees alternately brought together and forced far apart. Sometimes the legs are snapped up as if the dancer wished to seat himself cross-legged in the air.

Then they demonstrate some "animal dances," magic rites in which a dancer "becomes" an animal to make it easier to catch during the hunt. The kangaroo is the standout. The dancer half kneels, half crouches; bounds about the stage; curls his hands and rubs his eyes; occasionally holds up fingers for ears; folds his floppy hands puppylike to his chest; and makes delicate digging motions on the floor, carrying invisible morsels to his lips. He has a look of such alertness and intelligence that I feel sorry when the other dancers spear him and he falls to the floor, his hands twitching at his chest.

The performers make fire with "firesticks," igniting a chunk of dried grass and briefly tossing the flaming ball from hand to hand. Their final act is a kind of "We Are the World" number performed to a recorded rock score. The lyrics tell us that the aboriginal culture is 50,000 years old, but is threatened by the invading white culture: "We can't afford another plunder / Let's be as brothers in the land down under." The refrain is: "Aborigines will never die / Tjapukai."

Tjapukai Dance Theatre is the brainchild of onetime New York producer and director Don Freeman, who started the Australian group three years ago in Kuranda, a town of about 2,500. He's always been interested in indigenous performance--his first venture, when he moved to Appalachia in the early 70s, was hillbilly theater. When he moved to Australia eight years ago, he produced a "historical musical comedy" (which he also wrote and directed) about the first white man coming to far north Queensland. That play brought him into contact with David Hudson, the aborigine with whom he founded Tjapukai Dance Theatre, named for the local aboriginal tribe.

Freeman explains that when missionaries came to Kuranda, in a relatively remote rain-forest area, about 100 years ago, they strongly discouraged the "pagan rituals" that now make up the company's show. Hudson confirms that aboriginal customs were suppressed by the white culture: "If my mother and father were caught dancing, they were in trouble." Though he learned to dance and play the didgeridoo at home as a child, he didn't perform these arts professionally until nine or ten years ago.

The hunting culture that once gave rise to the singing, dancing, and story telling now encapsulated in Tjapukai's show has largely disappeared, but both Freeman and Hudson say that their dance theater has reinstituted pride in aboriginal culture. Hudson says that their dancers, many of them from Kuranda or some other small town, were once "not sure of themselves, unconfident." But not now. Though passersby pointed and laughed at them as they walked across the Loop, for example, "The boys are proud of themselves," says Hudson. "They don't care if people look at them." Aboriginal dancing has become so popular in Kuranda itself, Freeman says, that "even the white kids paint up and dance in school fetes."

With 27 employees, 17 of them performers, Tjapukai Dance Theatre is the largest employer in Kuranda. The other biggies are Kuranda's two pubs, a restaurant, and the local butterfly sanctuary. Kuranda itself was once a whistle-stop on the railway line built when gold was discovered in the region; the railway itself is now a tourist attraction, complete with original wooden cars. Nearby is a spectacular waterfall that Freeman says rivals Niagara during the wet season but slows to a trickle when it's dry. Tjapukai, which once performed in the basement of a shopping center, has built itself a 300-seat air-conditioned theater, where the group performs two hour-long shows daily, seven days a week.

"Of course," says Freeman, "there is some controversy--whether it's all right to do this for tourists. Is it a selling-out kind of thing? But the reality is, this keeps the culture alive and gives the people pride in it."

Hudson, who speaks with a rat-a-tat Australian accent and often brusquely, says, "Some people say that aborigine culture is long gone and dead. But it's not." On tour, he carries with him the clay that he uses to make up his own paint. He tells me that his headband is made of strips of pandanus leaf, cut and rolled into strings--"the ladies roll it on their legs"--and woven. He's decorated it with kangaroo teeth, which dangle in the neighborhood of his temples.

Still, Hudson's response to an inquisitive conventioneer is thoroughly modern. The man stumbles up to us, beer in hand, then points his finger at Hudson and says, "Is he supposed to be an aborigine?" Hudson's reply is quick and sardonic. "Yes," he says. "And last week I was Japanese."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.

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