Last 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 (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.
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
18 July 2019