Bangarra: Thirty years old and still going strong

Bangarra 30 yearsLast night we attended Bangarra Dance Theatre’s current touring program, 30 Years of Sixty Five Thousand. This title refers to the fact that Bangarra, Australia’s indigenous dance company, is thirty years old this year and that, as they write in their program, they present “stories through a dance form that is forged from more than 65,000 years of culture”. It was, in a word, stunning.

Now, I am not, as I’ve said before, a dance critic. That is, I don’t have the “right” language to describe dance, but I do have the words to describe the impact of this particular program. It was, essentially, a triple bill designed to showcase and celebrate Bangarra Dance Theatre’s story, so I’ll briefly describe the three works in the program.


Unaipon (45 mins) was created in 2004 by Frances Rings (whom I first encountered, long before blogging, in Leah Purcell’s book Black chicks talking). At a Bangarra event we attended in Sydney in May, Rings talked about the research she’d done for this work and the thinking behind the dances in it. Regular readers of this blog will know who Unaipon is, because I named him in a recent Monday Musings as the first indigenous Australian writer to publish a book. I also, in 2015, devoted a Monday Musings to the literary awards made in his name. He was an amazing man – inventor, philosopher, writer and storyteller.

Bangarra Artistic Director Stephen Page writes in the program that the work was “a pivotal moment in her [Rings’] transition from dancer to dance-maker … it was also the first time in our repertoire that we focused on the biographical story of one character”. Since then, they’ve done a few that Mr Gums and I have seen, including Mathinna, Patyegarang (about which I posted) and Bennelong. They’ve also done, as readers here will be interested to know, a dance adaptation (on which I also posted) of Bruce Pascoe’s book, Dark emu.

Anyhow, Unaipon captures the diversity of its subject’s life and interests, from his traditional Ngarrindjeri origins, his scientific interests in such topics as perpetual motion, and his interest in religion. The work comprises seven dances under three subjects: Ngarrindjeri, Science and Religion. “String Games” (Ngarrindjeri) is exciting to watch – and to wonder about the work involved in creating and choreographing it, and then in learning and performing it. “Motion” (Science) is a fun and evocative piece. Who knew physics could be so visual! And, the final piece, “Religion” is quietly moving, and perfectly accompanied by that spine-tingling choral music from Allegri’s Miserere.

You can watch the whole of Unaipon on YouTube, from the recent Sydney Opera House season of the program we saw.

Stamping Ground

Stamping Ground (20 mins) is the first work created by a non-indigenous choreographer to be performed by Bangarra. It was created in 1983 by Czech Jiří Kylián, after attending a “huge corroboree” on Groote Eylandt, which in fact he initiated, in 1980. This work was preceded and concluded by video footage, in which Kylián describes its genesis (with footage of some of that dancing from 1980), explaining that the work he created three years later (and which he cleared with the indigenous people) was inspired by but not intended to imitate (or appropriate) what he’d experienced. And that’s how it came across.

What an absolute delight it was. Witty, but respectful, it was performed by six dancers, who all performed solos, as well as dancing together. Stephen Page, at the after-event, described it as “a cheeky humorous take on the dances he saw”. It sure was – as anyone who has seen traditional indigenous dances could see – and we’d see it again in a flash, as we would the whole program, in fact.

To Make Fire

To Make Fire (40 mins) was something different again, a sort of medley of excerpts from previous works (including Mathinna) and organised into three sections, “Mathinna”, “About” and “Clan”, all performed against the rock-face style backdrop used in Patyegarang. The title, “To make fire”, is the English translation of the Wiradjuri word, Bangarra. I wondered how they were going to make this conglomeration work without its being bitsy-piecy but, drawing from the fire theme, the transitions were managed by small groups of dancers coming on stage carrying smoking sticks. As they crossed the stage, they left the dancers for the next dance behind, and picked up the dancers who had just finished. Clever, moving, and seamless.

This work, as a whole, evoked past wrongs (represented by the sad story of Mathinna) followed by dances conveying traditional and contemporary life and culture. There were solos, and small ensemble pieces, with, as you’d expect, the full company on stage for the finale. As To Make Fire, and thus the night’s performance, drew to a close, the dancers were bathed in a warm glow of light – sunlight, I presume – which I read as suggesting hope, for Bangarra, for indigenous Australians, and for a unified Australia.

After Event

As subscribers, we had tickets to the Gala Opening after the show. We were treated to an inspired Welcome to Country by local elder Paul House, who spoke in language and then translated into English, telling some stories about this country that we, here in Canberra, live on.

I’ve said nothing about the individual dancers. It’s hard to single people out in what is truly an ensemble company. We wondered how the company would be without the presence of Elma Kriss who retired from dancing this year but who has been such a luminous presence on Bangarra’s stage for so long. Some dancers did stand out for us, including the sinuously, lithe Tyrel Dulvarie and the powerful Beau Dean Riley Smith. I also watched out for two particular dancers – Ella Havelka (about whom the documentary Ella was made a few years ago), and Baden Hitchcock whom we met at the Bangarra event back in May. Both featured in the six-hand (is that how you say it?) Stamping Ground. I loved the opportunity this provided me to really watch and enjoy their expressive, engaged dancing. But, as I said, this is an ensemble company, and every dancer captured our attention at one moment or another.

We left the theatre on a high, realising that we had seen something special. Bangarra has well and truly established itself as a classy, sophisticated dance company, and yet still manages to keep itself real, relevant and true to its origins.

If you’ve never seen Bangarra perform, do go see this if it comes to a theatre near you.

30 Years of Sixty Five Thousand, by Bangarra Dance Theatre
Canberra Theatre
18 July 2019

22 thoughts on “Bangarra: Thirty years old and still going strong

  1. This is playing here soon and I’ve been tossing up whether to see it or not. I’ll see what the money situation is like, because I’d love to, especially after your review.

  2. Never read a Bangarra review that wasn’t totally enthusiastic, ST.
    Certainly says something …
    As does your non-review !

    • Haha, M-R, non-reviews are the best I reckon. No one can complain.

      Seriously though, it’s a wonderful dance company. We didn’t go away this July because seeing them is such priority for us, and this year they came to Canberra a week or more before they have the last two or three years.

  3. Ha ha, a non-review, I’m going to remember that term for when I “don’t” review cultural products I know nothing about (poetry, drama, art, music performances etc etc!)
    No, seriously, like you too I’m sure, I get pressured to review things I don’t have the language for, and it just demonstrates how some art-forms are really difficult to discuss if you don’t have the skill set for it.

    • Thanks Lisa – I think when you review something you know or are trained in, you become even more aware of the challenge of writing/talking about those you don’t know in that way, don’t you? But, that doesn’t mean we can’t write about their impact on us, does it?

      As for being pressured, I don’t feel I really get pressured, but I do get a lot of requests to review forms of writing I have no real background (or, often, interest) in.

      • Yes, I think that’s true of anything: the more I’ve learned anything in any field, the more in awe I am of people who can do things I can’t even imagine being able to do. Painting, for instance, architecture, and engineering.

        I do get pressured. It happened again just yesterday: I got sent a book I hadn’t asked for and certainly didn’t want to read, and had consigned it to my OpShop pile when in came an email checking that I’d received it and was I going to write a review. So, for the second time in 48 hours, I had to spend my time writing a gentle reply and a suggestion that they might like to read my review policy – which takes a lot longer when I find that my irritation has crept in and have to *wry smile* keep editing the reply for ‘tone’…

        • It’s very annoying isn’t it. I don’t get many books sent on spec like this, just a lot of emails, some of which I don’t even respond to, because, time and health, really. I spend way too much time as it is on computers and devices because of all my commitments – and it’s just not healthy.

          That said, I HAVE had a few books sent in recent months – genre fantasy and historical fiction. I’ve given some to Daughter Gums who likes fantasy. I did immediately respond to the first ones, explaining my policy, but haven’t been chased about any of them (yet, anyhow!)

    • I wouldn’t have a clue about how to review dance or music. I equally know little about sport which presented with rather a problem as a young journalist sent to report on the final of the Welsh professional snooker tournament. I had to rope in my husband to help provide the right lingo. It got worse when an about an hour before leaving for the venue I got called by the BBC and asked to do a live radio piece in the interview. oh hell……

      • Oh my goodness! There was a time when our ABC tried to fulfil its charter to cater for minority interests (instead of chasing ratings, as it does now) and it used to broadcast people playing in snooker competitions. It would be on late at night, so we’d occasionally see snippets of it before bed. The commentary was perfect for mockery, a bit like David Attenborough’s descriptions of some creature that hasn’t moved for half an hour. “And now he’s moving around the table *pause* *breath* *pause* surveying the fall of the balls *pause* *breath* *pause* and he’s stopped… and he’s thinking… and considering what to do next… and perhaps we should take a moment to consider his options? Well, there’s the red… and the blue… and …”
        You get the drift. Like doing a commentary on chess, I should think!

        • Haha Lisa. I remember, now, catching some of those. I don’t erm know the difference between snooker and billiards and pool! I know (think) there’s something to do with ball order and the white ball but I’m clueless. You can see what I DIDN’T do in my youth!

  4. Smiling at your non-review, too 🙂 Describing your enjoyment/engagement and the way the story, dancing, music created an atmosphere and the feelings they invoked you has created a terrific review.

  5. I’m amazed (but shouldn’t have been though) at how rich the aboriginal cultures of your country are and at how well you tell their stories. I’d done some research on the Māori of New Zealand a couple years ago and was so impressed by their efforts in education. Thank you for your reviews in introducing me to these dance programs or else I’d never had known, living thousands of miles away from Australia.

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