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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Bennelong, Bangarra Dance Theatre

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, July 1.

In Mathinna (2008) and Patyegarang (2014), Bangarra Dance Theatre’s artistic director, Stephen Page, shone a light on individual First Nations stories that may otherwise have stayed hidden from general view and certainly been seen only from a colonial perspective. Bennelong adds another important work to this growing body of portrait dances.

Mathinna was the little Tasmanian girl taken by a colonial governor and his wife when she was only four, raised with their daughter, and left behind four years later when they returned home. Patyegarang was the young Eora nation woman who, in the earliest days of British settlement, taught her language and culture to an English officer. Acquaintance with them makes our lives richer and enlarges our understanding of this country.

Beau Dean Riley Smith Bennelong Bangarra 3 Photo by Vishal Pandey

Beau Dean Riley Smith in Bennelong. Photo: Vishal Pandey

The cliché is that history is written by the victors. Page writes new histories that reclaim some of the stolen territory and the people who lived on it; who owned it. Page and his superlative team of creative collaborators take what can be gleaned from distant records and transform accepted fact into the highly emotional, immediate and richly allusive languages of movement, music and visual art.

In common with many of Bangarra’s works, Bennelong has only a passing connection with conventional narrative. The dance unfolds in discrete sections that sometimes refer directly to historical incidents and at other moments to myth and long-held cultural practice, or find connections between the two. The effect is impressionistic and hallucinatory. It’s also – this is no surprise at Bangarra – often ravishingly beautiful and deeply unsettling all at once.

When we begin at the beginning, with the birth of Wangal man Woollarawarre Bennelong, there is an extraordinarily magnetic evocation of ancient ritual now lost to most contemporary Westerners. After the death of Yemmerawanye, a young man taken by Governor Arthur Phillip to London with Bennelong, there is an exquisite stage picture paired with a recitation of the body parts casually taken as museum objects. A short scene shows the dying that comes when hitherto unknown diseases steal into a community.

Nothing, however, is more telling than the ending, in which Bennelong is enclosed in a kind of gilded mausoleum. He had shifted between two worlds, prospered to a degree in both and suffered grievously in both.

Beau Dean Riley Smith is a towering Bennelong, the inevitable focus whenever he is present. Page doesn’t make him a saint. He makes him human, fallible and incredibly vivid. A signature move is strong, multiple turns that have the rough energy of a man having constantly to turn his mind this way and that.

Bangarra Dance Theatre Bennelong Photo by Vishal Pandey

Bangarra Dance Theatre in Stephen Page’s Bennelong. Photo: Vishal Pandey

As Phillips wrote to Joseph Banks after Bennelong escaped his early capture: “Our native has left us, & that at a time when he appeared to be happy & contented … I think that Mans leaving us proves that nothing will make these people amends for the loss of their liberty”.

Page sometimes falls into repetitiveness and a little more distinction between the movement language for different groups would have been welcome. It is advisable, too, to do some pre-show reading and to listen intently to the spoken word in Steve Francis’s marvellous score. Not every scene is immediately intelligible.

Nevertheless, the bounty is great. Jacob Nash’s sets are unfailingly effective – uncluttered, as dance sets must be, yet full of grace and mystery under the lighting of one of the art form’s masters, Nick Schlieper. Matthew Doyle’s songs and voice are crucial elements in Francis’s splendid score, which includes sounds from nature, snatches of shanties, folk song and some Haydn for the London visit but is dominated by the words and music of the original inhabitants. As for longtime Bangarra costume designer Jennifer Irwin, she again works her magic. Who would have thought a jacket and hat could carry so much freight.

Ends July 29. Canberra, August 3-5. Brisbane, August 25-September 2. Melbourne, September 7-16.

Bangarra: OUR land people stories

Bangarra Dance Theatre, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, June 16

Bangarra offers balm in a fractured, fractious world. As always the work is radiantly lovely, but more important are underlying principles that have propelled Bangarra for more than a quarter of a century: connection with the land, learning from the past, the glue of community and the enduring power of storytelling.

Bangarra takes the long view. Place, family and culture are seen on a continuum that reaches from almost unfathomable antiquity into the now and beyond.

Each of the three works in OUR land people stories enlarges our understanding of these big themes as, sadly, does the program’s dedication to the company’s late music director, David Page. Page, who died in April, composed the heart-stopping score for Jasmin Shepphard’s Macq and was a pivotal figure in the creation of Bangarra’s unique aesthetic. In no other company’s work are past and present so potently, inextricably intertwined.

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Elma Kris and Waangenga Blanco in Nyapanyapa. Photo: Jhuny Boy-Borja

In a series of short, surreal and highly evocative scenes Macq relives a massacre of Indigenous Australians in NSW, ordered by Governor Lachlan Macquarie 200 years ago this year. We see grieving women, a parody of colonial society, an Indigenous leader refusing to give in to the might of his oppressor and a scene of hanging men in which dancers embody both the trees from which the men dangle and the loving arms that cut them down.

In an act of extraordinary generosity Sheppard lets us see Macquarie tormented by his action, even though his words speak of the need for retribution and chastisement. Daniel Riley’s anguished solo sees Macquarie in profound conflict with himself. In this and everywhere else Sheppard has a wonderful eye. A woman tries desperately to restore a dead man to life; the depiction of red-coated soldiers as a swarm of crawling commandos also brings to mind a mob of goannas; the group of perfectly still women to one side of the stage as their men hang, slowly raised and lowered while bathed in Matt Cox’s golden light, is a stage picture of perplexing beauty.

David Page’s score resounds with the echoing voices of the bereaved, the sound of the elements and the persistent buzz of the landscape. When the Indigenous men die Page weaves in allusions to medieval sacred music, European tradition mingling with an even older one. I can’t recall his having written a more affecting score and it is devastating that it was his last.

Macq has been somewhat reworked since its 2013 premiere in a more intimate studio setting and it fully earns this main stage exposure.

Beau Dean Riley Smith and Daniel Riley – they are related, although didn’t meet until they joined Bangarra – created Miyagan together to Paul Mac’s pungent score. It shows a kinship system reclaiming young people who are at first disconnected from it and while some details are elusive, the morphing from contemporary life into a mysterious world of spirits is subtle and beautiful.

There are brief flashes of what one might call normal life. Men strut, an old couple totters, a young couple flirts. Soon more enigmatic figures arrive as the stage is filled with a proliferation of great feathery branches, lit ravishingly by Cox (lighting designer for the whole evening). Hugely talented Jacob Nash designed all three works in OUR land people stories and each is spare, monumental and sculptural. Longtime Bangarra collaborator Jennifer Irwin provided the wonderful costumes. Nash, by the way, is one of the few designers who has the measure of the difficult letter-box dimensions of the Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House. His work always looks wonderful there.

This rich evening ends with Nyapanyapa, Stephen Page’s wondrously multi-layered homage to Arnhem Land artist Nyapanyapa Yunupingu. The depiction of a key event in Yunupingu’s life – she was severely injured by a buffalo – has mythic resonance while a later community gathering at which Yunupingu, danced devotedly by national treasure Elma Kris, isn’t quite at ease is instantly recognisable, funny and poignant all at once. At the end there is peace, harmony and grace.

Yunupingu’s paintings are recreated in dance and inspire Nash’s setting in a remarkably harmonius fusion of arts. Steve Francis’s score is in the spirit of David Page, mingling spoken language and natural sounds seamlessly with more contemporary sounds.

The 17-strong company is entrancing, revelling in fluid, juicy, full-bodied movement and animating every moment with shining sincerity. All are a joy. It’s particularly noticeable how democratic Bangarra’s dance is. Men and women frequently do the same movements and it’s refreshing to in Nyapanyapa, see three couples, all male, in a strong sextet.

The Bangarra dancers have a distinctive way of taking a curtain call. They aren’t necessarily all in line. Some may be laughing with the pleasure of having performed and they like to applaud each other and the audience. There’s a lot of joy and a complete lack of pretension and artifice. It’s incredibly endearing, but there’s something more too: a feeling of humility and deep service to the work.

Ends in Sydney July 9. Perth, July 20-23; Canberra, July 28-30; Brisbane, August 12-20; Melbourne, September 1-10.