Bangarra Dance Theatre has long been an iconic feature on the Australian arts scene. An Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander contemporary dance company founded in 1989 by two women: South African, Cheryl Stone, and African American, Carole Johnston. Two years later the company was under the leadership of Stephen Page who has been the artistic director and primary choreographer ever since. Page is a descendant of the Nunukul people and the Munaldjali clan of the Yugambeh tribe from South East Queensland. All of the company dancers have First Nations lineage and most have trained at the National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association (NAISDA) Dance College. Bangarra is dedicated to the distinctive voice for aboriginal concert dance. Sometimes that voice is loud and fun, at other times it is challenging and melancholy.
Dancer and emerging choreographer Jasmin Sheppard opened OUR land people stories with her piece Macq (2013) inspired by the 1816 Appin massacre in which conflicts between European settlers and indigenous people resulted in at least 14 deaths. Sheppard centers her piece on Governor Lachlan Macquarie, a complicated man who has since been well recognized throughout New South Wales and specifically Sydney. David Page’s score supports the piece beautifully. One can feel and hear the heat and oppression of the scene. What I learned from Macq was that Macquarie could have been a tortured soul, perhaps a man with a conscience but one who ultimately was tied to his British allegiances and authorized the killing of many indigenous men. The choreography in this piece spans from robotic colonists marching with their ornate prized possessions, to languid grief-stricken laments for the dead, and finally a brilliantly executed solo by Daniel Riley dancing the lead character. Macq is a difficult piece to recover from, but it grips your heart and mind while demanding your full attention. Sheppard is fearless in confronting formidable subject matter and bringing forth truth and honesty through her choreography.
The second piece from OUR land people stories was co-choreographed by cousins Beau Dean Riley Smith and Daniel Riley. Miyagan was inspired by a quest for belonging and understanding personal heritage. There is fluidity in the movement of Miyagan that culminates in pulsating ensemble dances. The piece starts with what could be inferred as village life: vignettes of people living, working and playing together. It then undergoes a transformation with some dancers wearing emu-feathered masks, weaving and devouring weight-changing, spiraling moves. The choreographic metamorphosis comes into full fruition with Jacob Nash’s gum tree inspired set design.
Bangarra paints stories of a hidden world, not known to most European Australians. The beauty of a Bangarra concert is that the audience is let in on the secret, catching a glimpse into a past that still resonates with our present and will inevitably affect our future. The evening closed with a piece choreographed by Stephen Page, inspired by the life and work of renowned visual artist Nyapanyapa Yunupingu. After a near-death experience with a buffalo, Yunupingu embarks on exploring her artistic interests in life. Nyapanyapa is a collection of snapshots. The audience is invited to view life through the eyes of an Aboriginal artist. Elma Kris dances the title role and she is a grounded force of nature. At some moments she is vulnerable and fragile, at others she is fierce and strong. She not only embodies Nyapanyapa but also is symbolic of a culture and understated way of life. Yunupingu’s art is fully realized for stage by set designer Nash and lighting designer Matt Cox.
Choreographic gems include a group of six men dancing in tight unison; an absolute feast for the eyes. In one of the piece’s lighter moments a bold red backdrop is projected with festive music by Warumpi Band. Several couples dance in a ho-down style in juxtaposition to Kris’ more stagnant and unpretentious character. The scene is an insulin injection reminding us of the pure joy and humor of life. Nyapanyapa closes with a projection of Yunupingu ‘s face, a reflection of a life well lived and one that continues to flourish.
With the recent passing of David Page, an integral part of Bangarra’s music, the company continues to thrive. It feels like the Tree of Life, a closely bounded band of artists that see themselves as not just immediate relatives but part of a greater family. Page’s work lives on through his kin who are heirs to some of the most poignant stories in Australia.
Paris Wages reviewed Bangarra Dance Theatre’s OUR land people stories on September 1 at the Arts Centre, Melbourne.
The photo of Bangarra’s Yolanda Lowatta was by Edward Mulvihill.