Bangarra Dance Theatre: 30 years of sixty five thousand

Bangarra Dance Theatre, Sydney Opera House, June 14

What a marvellous idea to include Jiří Kylián’s Stamping Ground in this celebration of Bangarra’s three decades of dance. It’s a terrifically exciting piece and its presence could be justified simply on artistic grounds. But why now, particularly as Bangarra has never before performed the work of a non-Indigenous choreographer? It’s a wonderful story.

The Czech master made Stamping Ground in 1983 for Nederlands Dans Theater, three years after attending a vast gathering of Australian First Nations communities on Groote Eylandt. He hadn’t simply been invited: Kylián had been a prime mover of the event. He had learned about and been deeply moved by the centrality of dance in Indigenous Australian life – the necessity, really. Dance contained history and stories, expressed spirituality and was the common language for people who spoke in many different tongues.

Bangarra - 30 Years of 65 Thousand - Stamping Ground

Rika Hamaguchi and Ryan Pearson in Stamping Ground. Photo: Daniel Boud

Well-chosen extracts from a documentary made about the Groote Eyelandt festival precede Bangarra’s performance of Stamping Ground and make abundantly clear just how profound the experience was for Kylián, an experience that “influenced each and every work he has created since then”, says Roslyn Anderson, Kylián’s Australian-born assistant choreographer. It’s hard to overestimate this tremendous gift to contemporary dance. (Anderson staged Stamping Ground for Bangarra.)

Bangarra artistic director Stephen Page had an embarrassment of riches to choose from for this program, much of it his own work, so the recognition of Kylián is graceful and timely.

So is the decision to open 30 years with Frances Rings’s Unaipon from 2004. Rings, formerly a dancer with Bangarra before turning to choreography, was recently named Bangarra’s associate artistic director; this was her first big work for the company. It explores the culture and ideas of Ngarrindjeri man David Unaipon in seven sections that allude to his work as a preacher, inventor and philosopher (he died in 1967).

There is a trance-like quality to much of the dance language as Rings places Unaipon’s thinking in a universal context. There is nothing more lovely than its night-sky opening, in which we hear Unaipon’s suggestion that the source of life is to be found “in another world – yet we are here”. Otherworldliness permeates Uniapon. A section based on string games is grounded in the reality of traditional Ngarrindjeri life but abstracted into something grand and mysterious, as is Rings’s depiction of the four winds, representing knowledge of the land. Swirling bodies evoke Unaipon’s interest in the laws of motion and rapt calmness his Christian faith.

Bangarra - 30 Years of 65 Thousand - Unaipon

Tyrel Dulvarie as Tolkami (West Wind) in Unaipon. Photo: Daniel Boud

The music, lush with language and song, comes chiefly from the hand of David Page. He died in 2016 but his wonderful score lives on. The costumes by Jennifer Irwin, a long-time Bangarra collaborator, are a joy to revisit, as is Peter England’s set and Nick Schlieper’s lighting.

Stamping Ground opens the second half of the program and is pure joy. Each of the six dancers is introduced with a silent solo and then the piece heads into exhilarating, hard and fast duos and trios to a percussion work by Carlos Chávez. It’s forceful, witty and 100 per cent Kylián but with touches of the inspiration – not imitation, he stresses – the choreographer is indebted to. The alert use of head, eyes and neck are particularly notable, as are the wonderfully springy, agile knees. The Bangarra cast dances Stamping Ground with splendidly earthy vigour  and makes it their own.

The program ends satisfyingly with To Make Fire, a blending of sections from earlier Bangarra works. The short excerpt from Stephen Page’s Mathinna refers to colonisation and exploitation. It is followed by dances from Elma Kris’s lovely About, which springs from Torres Strait Island culture. The third element, Clan, draws from several works, ending with a ravishingly beautiful section called Hope from 2002.

Photography Lisa Tomasetti-74

The Bangarra ensemble in To Make Fire. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

It’s a big night for the full ensemble of 16 and not all can be mentioned, but there were standout performances from Baden Hitchcock and Ryan Pearson (Stamping Ground) and Tyrel Dulvarie (Stamping Ground and Unaipon). Tara Gower, Rika Hamaguchi and Ella Havelka completed the Stamping Ground cast with distinction.

30 years is also a tribute to many outstanding contributors to Bangarra’s look and sound, including the distinguished designer Jacob Nash and composer Steve Francis. It’s a special evening.

Ends in Sydney July 13. Then Canberra, July 18-20; Perth, July 31-August 3; Darwin, August 17; Brisbane, August 23-31; Melbourne, September 5-14; Adelaide, September 19-21; Hobart October 3-5.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on June 17.

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