Dark Emu, Bangarra Dance Theatre

Sydney Opera House, June 16.

Bangarra Dance Theatre, 30 years old next year, has spent its existence opening doors to this country’s ancient past. The audience – a wildly enthusiastic one each time I’ve attended during those three decades – has its knowledge of our First Nations history and culture enlarged on every occasion.

I think of artistic director Stephen Page’s moving series of portraits in dance, Mathinna (2008), Patyegarang (2014), Bennelong (2017) and his brilliantly surreal one-act homage to artist Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, Nyapanyapa (2016). Unforgettable too are Page’s Skin (2000) and Frances Rings’s X300 (2007), a searing critique of the Maralinga atomic tests, and Unaipon (2004), which brought to vibrant life the man on the $50 note.

Dark Emu also offers fresh, welcome insights into Aboriginal experience and custom, although with less force.

Dark Emu - Bangarra

Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Dark Emu. Photo: Daniel Boud

As designed by Jacob Nash (set), Jennifer Irwin (costumes) and Sian James-Holland (lights), the production looks gorgeous: whenever was that not the case with Bangarra? Its impact, however, is blunted by too much sameness in the dance language and with a structure that gives everything the same weight.

The reason is undoubtedly that Dark Emu’s choreography is credited to Page, company member Daniel Riley, former member Yolande Brown and the Bangarra dancers. That’s a lot of cooks. True, the wonderful Ochres (1994; revived 2015) also had three choreographers but lightning hasn’t struck twice. It’s also noticeable that, with a significant amount of new, young blood in the ranks, Bangarra’s ensemble isn’t quite as sharp as at other times in its history.

Dark Emu is based on Bruce Pascoe’s book of the same name and challenges the widely accepted image of the hunter-gathers who roved the continent for millennia before the Brits arrived to teach them a thing or two. Dark Emu tells – or at least aims to tell – another story, one of people who knew how to tend and protect their land and were at one with it.

Dark Emu - Bangarra

Bangarra Dance Theatre in Dark Emu. Photo: Daniel Boud

The work begins strongly with dancers rising from the ground and raising their arms. Wavy concentric circles, radiant blue against a black background, dwarf the men and women. They may be supplicating, calling to spirits for guidance. Perhaps they’re paying homage to the awe-inspiring canopy of stars and dark matter above, acknowledging that an immense and immensely powerful universe surrounds our small blue planet and protects it. It may be both. The image resonates.

So too does Steve Francis’s intense, multi-layered score with its thunder and rain, incorporation of Indigenous instruments, song, spoken word, evocation of insects and much more.

Nevertheless, Dark Emu too often becomes too opaque. Despite the welcome participation of a dramaturg, Alana Valentine, references are so abstracted as to be unclear or else too briefly explored. The program contains a beautiful note from artistic director Stephen Page and comments from Brown, Riley and others that are extremely helpful, but the work needs to speak more cogently for itself.

Dark Emu’s most emphatic point is one that’s never far from Bangarra’s mind. Spiritual practices, poetically evoked, are inextricably linked with everyday activities. Then, inevitably, the colonisers come and trample on this delicately poised existence. That’s a message no one could fail to read.

Dark Emu - Bangarra

Beau Dean Riley Smith, centre, in Dark Emu. Photo: Daniel Boud

The charismatic Beau Dean Riley Smith makes a magnetic appearance near the end of Dark Emu, seen in the context of invasion but also as a figure of continuity and resilience. His poignant dance is memorable but points up the lack of big individual moments earlier. Time and again the deliberate concentration on swirling, tumbling groups flattens and distances Dark Emu.

Just as something starts to grab the imagination there’s a brisk trot on to the next idea. Concepts of great moment and emotional possibility are short-changed. There are tantalising glimpses of some of Bangarra’s most individual dancers – among them Elma Kris, as always; Yolanda Lowatta, who’s only been with Bangarra since 2015 but is already a star – but then they disappear.

Ends in Sydney July 14. Canberra, July 26-28; Perth, August 2-5; Brisbane August 24-September 1; Melbourne September 6-15.

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