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

My literary week (13), it’s (mostly) all about Aussies

This last week or so we’ve been on the road again, severely cutting into my reading time, but literary things have been happening, nonetheless.

National Bookshop Day, 2018

Readings Kids, Carlton

Readings Kids, Carlton

Yesterday, August 10th, was, as many of you know, National Bookshop Day and I did, in fact, visit a bookshop, Readings in Carlton, Melbourne. I bought Gerald Murnane’s Border districts, which brings me one step closer to reading this Miles Franklin shortlisted book. Daughter Gums and I also visited, next door, the Readings Kids bookshop, where she bought Alison Lester’s Rosie sips Spiders for a baby shower she was attending this weekend.

It was so hard not to buy more, but you all know how behind I am in my reading so you’ll understand my abstemiousness!

I’d love to hear what you did – if you are an Aussie – to support the day?

Alison Lester Gallery

A couple of days before National Bookshop Day we were driving to Melbourne from Canberra via one of the long routes, in this case via Cann River. It was an interesting drive that took us through some quite dramatic landscapes – from the shimmering yellow-white colours of the Monaro in drought to the lush green of south-east Victoria which is not!

Alison Lester GalleryOn Day Two we overnighted at Foster, in order to visit Wilson’s Promontory, before driving on to Melbourne the next day via Fish Creek. Now, Fish Creek is a very pretty little town that also happens to be the home of the Alison Lester Gallery – yes, the Alison Lester who wrote (and illustrated) the book Rosie sips spiders mentioned above. Fish Creek is a lovely little town, and is in the region where Lester was born, grew up and still lives. We bought books here for our new Grandson Gums. The Gallery sells Lester’s books plus numbered prints of her beautiful book illustrations. It also has a little library nook where you can read her books before you decide to buy them. Unfortunately Lester wasn’t there, but you can organise to have your books signed if you want to (and don’t mind waiting for your books!)

BTW Alison Lester was one of Australia’s Inaugural Children’s Laureate from 2011 to 2013, which I wrote about back then.

The Wife and RBG

One of our Melbourne traditions is to have a meal and see a movie with Daughter Gums. We usually go to Cinema Nova (across the road from Readings Bookshop.) It’s a big complex, but not at all like those big impersonal suburban multiplexes. The cinemas are mostly small, and many have rather idiosyncratic layouts, but the movie selection is wonderful. We decided to see The wife, starring Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce, and adapted from Meg Wolitzer’s novel, that I haven’t read. It focuses on the responses and feelings of the wife of an author who is told he has won the Novel Prize for Literature. If you don’t know the story, I don’t want to spoil it, but it is a great film for booklovers, and, particularly, for women booklovers! I enjoyed seeing Glenn Close again in a meaty role. The story is full of issues to chew over about gender, morality, pride, vocation, relationships over the long haul, and about how a door chosen can have unexpected ramifications down the line.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, by Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court of the United States (Source 2)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Then, suddenly finding ourselves with some extra free time, Mr Gums and I took the opportunity to also see the documentary RBG about the US Supreme Court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. As documentaries go, this takes a pretty standard form – a combination of archival footage, contemporary footage, interviews with Ginsburg and with friends, family and colleagues. Wikipedia quotes film reviewer Leslie Felperin who says:

…there is something deeply soothing about RBG, a documentary that, like its subject, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is eminently sober, well-mannered, highly intelligent, scrupulous and just a teeny-weeny bit reassuringly dull.

As I said, traditional in form, but the subject is so intelligent and her contributions to thinking about women’s rights so relevant beyond the USA, that the film kept us engaged from beginning to end. She is a fascinating woman with an inspiring capacity for clarifying the complex.

Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Dark Emu

Bruce Pasco, Dark emuNow, we didn’t quite see Bangarra Dance Theatre’s performance of Dark Emu this week but we did see it very recently so I’m sneaking it in here. This is Bangarra’s interpretation of Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark emu (my review) in which he argues that indigenous Australians were not hunter-gatherers but had an agricultural practice, a practice that better proves, in legal terms apparently, their sovereignty or ownership of the land.

I wondered how they would balance the abstraction of dance with the literalness of the theory Pascoe presents (a theory that requires evidence of all sorts of agricultural practices) without, somehow, being prosaic. The dance, the props (which helped convey activities such a corralling animals, damming water, storing food), the lighting, and the music (which mixed traditional sounds with more suggestive modern ones) kept the audience on track with the story being told, although I understand Canberra reviewer Michelle Potter’s point that we didn’t always comprehend the “meaning” of what we were seeing in terms of the theoretical argument. For Mr Gums and me, though, these concerns were not strong enough to spoil the spectacle of Bangarra’s dancing. The moves, the shapes, the energy – we can never get enough of them and we did “get” the main threads of the narrative. (And, I suspect a second viewing would make a big difference. It is sometimes tricky to separate out spectacle from meaning first time around.)

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.