Review: Blood Flows in Night River

Mark Coles Smith’s musical alias Kalaji premiers a multisensory dreamscape in Night River, writes Monique Grbec. Blak Critics is a YIRRAMBOI initiative giving voice to First Nations writers and critics.

Kalaji, aka Helpmann Award–winning star of stage and screen Mark Coles Smith, honours his ancestral lands and the great Mardoowarra (Fitzroy River) with Night River, a multisensory dreamscape premiering at Meat Market in North Melbourne as part of this year’s YIRRAMBOI First Nations Festival of art and culture.

Secreted behind walls of keyboards, Kalaji emerges from the darkness as strong sweet sound. A blend of blissful vocals and electronic music that pulses through your body like blood, their combined transcendence is united with a montage of images filmed by Smith.

We are here for the rivers, and Kalaji, our guide whose name takes on the Nyikina word for ‘whirlwind’, leads us gently. His voice is mesmerising, a sweetness in our veins that floats us up with the beauty of night skies and bright moons. If the visuals are where ‘time is sky and rock,’ then his voice is the breeze.

The moving landscapes are both vast empire and intimate invitation to Smith’s ancestral lore, showing rivers, waterholes, and skies clear and cloudy, day and star-bright night. There are grasses and the bleeding red of rock art from the Kimberley. Amid plundered terrain, a population of ravaged red Wanjinas remind us that cultural heritage continues to be pushed aside for mining dollars.

There are ripples of water emanating a sonic radar, the drama of time lapse, a neon-lit landscape, clouds reminiscent of Van Gogh brushstrokes, a mountain of boulders cut open and filled with other images of the landscape and skies above. A centred burst of angular lines in rainbow colours that shape shift over this terrain and offers us the opportunity to question purpose and excess.

‘Hardly any time anymore,’ Kalaji’s drifting vocals are trance-like. From out of the darkness, he walks to the front of the stage, kneels and leans forward to scoop a hand through a trough of water. Ripples of light dance and reflect brightly on the ceiling. The cleansing smell of eucalypt calms. In the simplicity of Kalaji’s movement and the reply of light and water, we are reminded of true beauty.

While the video image of a bare and buff-chested Kalaji, adorned in headdress and theatrical make-up and filmed by Jonathan Chong, is beguiling to watch, the simple sweep of his hand through the water offers us a clear overview for his Night River tribute – come out of the dark, our actions have consequence.

Night River premiered at YIRRAMBOI Festival 2019, with sold-out shows at Meat Market. Night River is a YIRRAMBOI KIN Commission, supported by City of Melbourne.