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

Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Patyegarang

This year is Bangarra Dance Theatre’s 25th anniversary. For those of you who don’t know, Bangarra Dance Theatre is an Indigenous Australian contemporary dance company that was established – obviously – in 1989. Its artistic director since 1991 has been Stephen Page. His brother, David Page, does the music. These are two very talented brothers who have had their hands in many significant indigenous arts endeavours besides Bangarra, but today it’s Bangarra I want to talk about! Bangarra is apparently a Wiradjuri word for “to make fire”.

Mr Gums and I have been to many Bangarra shows over the years. They are exciting. We love the way they incorporate indigenous themes and movements into the contemporary dance world. Last year’s show was Blak, which comprised three parts – a men’s story, a women’s story, and then both genders together. It was clever and entertaining. In 2012, we saw Terrain, which was inspired by the changing landscape of Lake Eyre in central Australia.

Two performances we’ve seen, though, have been inspired by historical figures – and have also connected, coincidentally, with Australian literature. In 2008 it was Mathinna, the indigenous Tasmanian girl who was adopted by Governor and Lady Franklin. Richard Flanagan told her story in his novel Wanting, which I read before blogging.  The other is their current show Patyegarang about the young indigenous woman who befriended and trusted first fleet astronomer-timekeeper, Lieutenant Dawes. She trusted him so much that she shared her culture with him, including her people’s language, which Dawes recorded in his diaries. Their story is told in Kate Grenville’s The lieutenant, which I reviewed a couple of years ago.

Stephen Page explains in the program why he chose this story for their 25th anniversary show:

I wanted to take the opportunity to pay homage to the land on which we have gathered and created dance theatre works since 1989 – the Eora nation; the place we call Sydney.


I believe Patyegarang was a young woman of fierce and endearing audacity, and a ‘chosen one’, to speak, within her clan and community. Her tremendous display of trust in Dawes resulted in a gift of cultural knowledge back to her people almost 200 years later …

What he means here is that Dawes’ diaries, which were “rediscovered” by a researcher in the 1970s, have helped current people recover language and culture that had been lost.

Dramaturg Alana Valentine talks of how she translated Page’s vision into a story. She also quotes Richard Green, an elder and cultural adviser for the project, who said that “Dawes was different, he listened”. Valentine continues:

It is an observation that carries invaluable wisdom for how contemporary Australia might continue to honour the contribution Dawes himself made to reconciliation and respect.

There it is again – the message we keep hearing: Listen!

Musician David Page talks of working closely with his brother, nutting out just who Patyegarang was. He said the biggest question for him was “How close was their relationship?”

So, the show. It runs for 70 minutes without interval. My, how hard those dancers worked. As you would expect, it took their relationship from their meeting through getting to learn to trust each other and share their knowledge to when Dawes departs. The scene opens on the beach with the warm glow of dawn. It’s idyllic. The people go about their business, safe, as they usually do. Then a strange man appears and the story progresses. There’s hunting and gathering, smoking ceremonies, the gradual acceptance of Dawes (danced by the non-indigenous Thomas Greenfield) led by Patyegarang (Jasmin Shepherd) while others are less sure – and of course there’s fighting with the red coats. It’s a work that requires concentration and imagination from the audience – and I’m not sure we understood all the references. I suspect this is because while there seemed to be a clear narrative, the program is framed a little more abstractly, focussing on feelings, spirit, values and politics rather than narrative. It’s a work that would benefit from multiple viewings.

The dancing draws closely from traditional moves – at least from those I, as a non-indigenous person, recognise – but is still contemporary. Much of it is low to the ground, earthy, suggesting connection to country. All this is accompanied by lighting that tracks the day and mood; a simple backdrop of cliffs, which at times gave the impression of the ancestors looking on, and a single large rock representing a place of safety, of meeting; and gorgeous costuming that blends with the earth while suggesting lightness and spirit too. There’s one dance by the women – “Maugri (Generic Fish)” – in which tubular costumes enable them to slip from human to sea-creature and back again in fluid, organic moves. The music is dramatic, evocative – including clapping sticks at times, strains of “Botany Bay” at others, and overlays of the language Patyegarang shared and Dawes documented.

Works like this are inspiring on multiple levels, emotionally, intellectually and politically … it would be wonderful if more Australians could (or would) see it.

We unfold – or do we?

It’s been a while since I reviewed something other than books and writing here, but tonight Mr Gums and I went to the Sydney Dance Company’s performance of We unfold, and so it’s time I thought for another performing arts review.

We Unfold, photo by Tim Richardson

We unfold (Image: Tim Richardson, via twitpic, )

The choreographer – and artistic director of the company – Rafaela Bonachela describes his creation as follows:

I wanted to create a piece about our needs and desires to slowly unfold, revealing ourselves to those around us … we unfold is collective discovery, a self-examination of our emotional cores. [Program]

The work uses 14 (or so) dancers, and incorporates music by Ezio Bosso, video art by Daniel Askill and costume design by Jordan Askill.

The dancing was beautiful. It was fluid but also had a feet-planted-firmly-on-the-ground muscularity, resulting in a performance that had both strength and beauty. The music was powerful, but perhaps a little too insistent at times. There wasn’t a lot of dynamic range – it seemed either strong and loud, or stronger and louder. The video art, on the other hand, was quite mesmerising, making it sometimes hard to know where to look – at the dancers or the video behind them. The costuming was effectively minimal for a dance about “emotional cores”, with neutral colours and, for the women, light barely-there diaphanous shifts/tops/dresses (take your pick).

So, what was it all about? The video art suggested a range of things. At times I thought I was seeing a progression of the elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. At other times I thought I was seeing evolution, or at least its commencement in the Big Bang Theory. Then again, there was also a suggestion of Adam and Eve in two sequences, one featuring a man rising from a crouching position, and the other featuring a woman who was, at the end of the sequence, suspended in mid-air. Perhaps it was all of these? Perhaps it was about all these basic things that make us who we are.

In the program notes, Bonachela said that the work was developed collectively with the dancers by encouraging them to improvise during the creation process. He wanted them to explore their willingness to open up, or not, to each other and said that this resulted in different connections and relationships being developed. There was certainly that. I enjoyed, for example, seeing gender roles played with. Not only did men lift women, but men lifted men, women lifted women, and women lifted men. Dancers moved fluidly from solo to duet, trio and larger groupings – and they did it surely.  Overall, it was a very “ground-based” piece, earthy rather than light and airy. In fact some moves were reminiscent of something primeval (which made me think evolution) but neither these nor anything else seemed to turn into any sort of “narrative”, even in an abstract sense. In other words, the unfolding connections weren’t particularly obvious to us. By the end, we felt like we’d watched a sequence of beautiful, well-executed and very watchable moves, but something that was a bit repetitious or, as Mr Gums so succinctly put it, somewhat one-dimensional.

This is the first time we have seen the company since Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon (artistic director and associate director) left in 2007 after 30 years with the company. We unfold didn’t grab us quite the same way as previous performances (such as Boxes, Tivoli, GrandThe Director’s Cut) have – but the dancing was excellent, as we’ve come to expect, so we’ll be back.

What I didn’t know about flamenco

Until tonight, if you’d asked me what flamenco was I probably would have said a Spanish dance accompanied by percussion and I might have said there’s flamenco music too. After all, I have heard flamenco guitar! Tonight, though, we attended a performance by  Soledad Barrio and Noche Flamenca, and I learnt more about flamenco in two hours than I’d learnt in my somewhat longer lifetime.

Noche Flamenca was formed in 1993 by Martin Santangelo and his dancer wife Soledad Barrio. The performance we saw comprised two guitarists, two singers and three dancers (all male except for Soledad Barrio). The show commenced with the company on stage tapping out percussive rhythms on a table as if they were at a bar (cantina) and ended with the company doing another hand percussive piece, but this time without table. In between was a sequence of dance and singing items all performed on a stark, minimal stage and pretty well all accompanied by one or two guitars. The only props were chairs, and the lighting was simple but dramatic. I am no dance and music critic and so will not attempt an analysis of what we saw but I will say that it was a beautiful show. It wasn’t what we, naively now I realise, expected: we expected red dresses and castanets, along with stamping feet. We got the stamping feet but there wasn’t a castanet in sight. The whole show was presented as if it were a highly stylised cantina: performers appeared from the group to “show off” a dance or song and controlled but seemingly natural chat could be heard occasionally in the background. The dancing was splendid. I was particularly taken with some travelling moves by Soledad in which, if I hadn’t actually heard the feet tapping, I would have believed she was floating above the surface. Eat your heart out Michael Jackson!

Flamenco Dancer, photo by Gilles Larrain (via Wikipedia)

Flamenco Dancer, photo by Gilles Larrain (via Wikipedia)

So, what did I learn? I learnt that flamenco covers dance, music and song, and that a major feature is its complex syncopation against a strict rhythmic structure (called the compás). My most interesting discovery, though, was that while it is now defined as the music and dance of the Andalusian region of Spain, its origins are wider. During the performance, I was surprised by the singing in particular as it had, to my admittedly untrained ears, a Middle Eastern sound. A quick search of the Internet after we got home told me why – flamenco’s roots are Arabic (Moorish) and European gypsy. How nice to discover that my untrained ears are slowly being trained!

Oh, and I also learnt – rightly or wrongly – that flamenco is a very male thing, that male posturing and bravado are very much part of the tradition. At least that’s how it appeared to me as presented by this company of six men and one woman.

I came away a much wiser person. I also came away wishing I could swish and swirl my skirt the way Soledad did. First though I have to get the skirt!

Consider the floor burnt…

Courtesy:Marj K @

Courtesy: Marj K @

One of my dilettantish (you know, jack of all trades master of none) interests is dance. I did ballet for eight years as a child (not very well) and have done ballroom dancing on and off since my late teens (not very well); I have tried my hand at folk dancing, English country dancing and, if you count it as dancing, ice-skating (none of these very well either!). All this is to say that I enjoy dance – doing it and watching it – and so tonight we went to see Floorplay, the latest show by Australian ballroom dancing troupe, Burn the Floor. (You can see a You Tube excerpt of an earlier show here).

Australian and World Ballroom Champions, Jason Gilkison and Peta Roby, are the dance inspirations behind the troupe which has been going since the late 1990s. It is a great way for them to carry on their love of dance in their post-competition lives. The dancers are professional and/or competitive dancers from around the world. The show was great fun: it was high energy dancing from beginning to end. Of course, this was not ballroom as I have ever done it. It was the sort of ballroom we saw on Paul McDermott’s Strictly Dancing. The music was recorded but was supplemented by two live percussionists and two singers. This combination of recorded music overlaid with live gave a real boost to the experience. Using live percussion, in particular, is inspired, given that dance is an art form that relies so much on beat and rhythm.

The program covered a wide range of styles from traditional ballroom (like waltz and quickstep) to Latin (like rumba and samba, tango and the paso doble). Thrown in there too were those fun party dances like the jive and jitterbug, but it all moved so fast that only the experts could have picked up all the styles performed. (Note that my categorisation is a lay one – ballroom dancers make much finer distinctions when they describe and group dances). The rather expensive program described “scenes” such as Harlem Nights and Fire in the Ballroom, but knowing this was probably not essential to enjoying the show. There was no real sense of narrative beyond that which is intrinsic to the individual dances themselves: rather, the show is about entertainment and display.

So, what else to say? The costuming was gorgeous, the execution was excellent, and the transitioning from routine to routine was, to use a cliche, seamless. The dancing was sensuous, but appropriately so, though the couple of routines comprising one woman and several men could have some uncomfortable readings. We saw just one slip and it was recovered so well that, if we hadn’t both seen it, I would have thought I’d imagined it.

At the end of the night my toes were tapping and, while I’ll never dance like that, I’m not ready to put away my dance shoes quite yet! It’s time I looked for my next class…