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.

Heart and soul

Sydney Opera House, June 11

IN Frances Rings’s Sheoak, her new work for Bangarra Dance Theatre, there is a greatly touching section for two women, on the Sydney opening night danced by Elma Kris and Yolanda Lowatta. The duo is one of protection, nurturing and teaching, and was enriched immeasurably by Kris’s radiant maturity and Lowatta’s shiny youth. Kris, now 43, is one of the longest-serving members of the Bangarra company while Lowatta, 23, is still a trainee, although a future in dance looks very secure indeed. She was awarded the 2015 Russell Page Fellowship and catches the eye effortlessly on stage.

But Lowatta is right at the beginning of her journey. Kris has travelled a long way from her earliest days with Bangarra as a rather shy figure whose world seemed to hold secrets we’d never learn. She was always intriguing because of that but you had to seek her out on stage. Now she is in the full flowering of her artistry. She is still a very modest performer, never appearing to seek the spotlight, but transmits a dance’s purpose with the greatest clarity.

Elma Kris and company in Sheoak. Photo: Jhuny Boy Borja

Elma Kris and company in Sheoak. Photo: Jhuny Boy Borja

Kris has never been the most obviously polished dancer in Bangarra’s ranks but she has qualities that transcend technical finish. She has heart and soul. She can take you to the realm most important to Bangarra – an understanding of traditional Indigenous culture.

As well as anchoring the ancient mysteries of Sheoak, Kris had a central role in I.B.I.S., the here-and-now work that gets the lore double bill off to a rollicking start. Who would have thought that going down to the shop to stock up on food could be so much fun? I.B.I.S. is named after a Queensland Government statutory body – Islanders Board of Industry & Service – that operates stores in the Torres Strait. One of its responsibilities (I got this from a 2013 report) is to “provide healthy food choices at lowest possible prices”.

With the lightest of touches, co-choreographers Deborah Brown and Waangenga Blanco remind us that people (and not only Indigenous people) are increasingly removed from their own food gathering. Want some crayfish? It comes out of the freezer. (The freezer also provides some welcome cooling air for a group of exceptionally sinous shoppers.)

I.B.I.S. starts with a delightful gathering of friends amongst the shelves, the women in pretty flowery frocks (longtime Bangarra associate Jennifer Irwin created all the terrific costumes for this program) and the men full of high spirits. There’s singing, horsing about and some business with shopping baskets, and then things start getting surreal as turtles and crayfish come to life with sinuous grace and flickering legs. The fantastical then gives way to the traditional as the company performs vibrant stamping dances.

Wanneer Blanco, Yolanda Lowatta and Tara Gower in I.B.I.S. Photo: Jeff Tan

Waangenga Blanco, Yolanda Lowatta and Tara Gower in I.B.I.S. Photo: Jeff Tan

I.B.I.S. is a first work from Brown and Blanco and it’s a great success. The theme of change in practices and the environment is delivered with much humour and vitality. Bangarra doesn’t have a huge ensemble so Brown and Blanco didn’t get the night off work to enjoy I.B.I.S. from the auditorium. They both looked terrific, as did the whole company.

Sheoak is a serious, dramatically beautiful response to timeless imperatives. As the work starts a disintegrating mass of bodies shows the fracturing of an old way of life but essential parts remain through troubled times and in renewal. The tree is re-imagined as fragments in a series of vignettes touching on loss and recovery. The meaning is at times elusive but the atmospherics powerful. Jacob Nash designed both works with Karen Norris on lighting. As ever, it is hard to think of dance works that consistently look as ravishing as Bangarra’s. David Page composed for Sheoak and Steve Francis wrote the I.B.I.S. score, both of them using Indigenous language as an integral aspect of music and meaning.

Sydney until July 4. Canberra, July 9-11; Wollongong, July 23-25; Brisbane, August 7-15; Melbourne, August 28-September 5.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on June 15.

‘A string of pearls’

Patyegarang, Bangarra Dance Theatre. Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, June 12.

THE story of young indigenous woman Patyegarang and Lieutenant William Dawes of the First Fleet is rare and precious. In the tumultuous first years of white settlement, as the British colonisers imposed themselves and their culture on what is now the glittering city of Sydney but was then the Eora nation, Dawes studied and recorded the local language. Patyegarang appears to have been his most important teacher.

Bangarra Dance Theatre’s long-serving artistic director Stephen Page has chosen to mark the company’s 25th anniversary with this touching connection between black and white – a meeting of minds that took place just a short stroll away from the theatre in which Patyegarang received its premiere.

Top, Jasmin Sheppard and Thomas Greenfield; above, the Bangarra ensemble. Photos: Jess Bialek

Top, Jasmin Sheppard as Patyegarang and Thomas Greenfield as William Dawes; above, the Bangarra Dance Theatre ensemble. Photos: Jess Bialek

And perhaps it was a meeting of bodies too. That is the strongest impression gained from Page’s rendering of Patyegarang’s relationship with Dawes, perhaps inevitably so. The wordless physical language of dance finds it easier to imply intimacy of the flesh than of the intellect.

Page takes a non-literal, dreamlike approach to this sliver of history. In 13 brief scenes he touches on life before dispossession, its rituals and its spiritual breadth. After colonisation comes conflict and resistance, although these elements share the misty quality that veils the piece as a whole. As one scene melts into another it become evident that narrative has a very small part to play. Patyegarang is a highly impressionistic, meditative work.

As always with Bangarra, the staging of Patyegarang is outstandingly beautiful, so much so that it may be enjoyed as a work of visual art (Jacob Nash, set; Nick Schlieper, lighting; Jennifer Irwin, costumes). The evocation of a pristine land and the play of light on rock are magical, adding to the atmosphere of otherworldliness.

All this means Patyegarang is stronger on mood than specifics. It’s like a string of pearls, perhaps too loosely strung. The soft lustre is appealing but greater tension and more varied emphases, particularly in composer David Page’s rhythmic structure, would make a more powerful impression.

There are no reservations about the performances, chief among them Jasmin Sheppard’s luminous, enigmatic Patyegarang. She is the glowing centre of the work. Much of the movement for Thomas Greenfield’s Dawes aligns him with the indigenous men and leaves him looking a little unrealised as someone from another world, but Greenfield is an imposing man who makes the most of what he has. The other standout is Elma Kris, Bangarra’s senior dancer and a performer of quiet but radiant charisma.

While Patyegarang as a whole is a touch diffuse there are many individual moments as striking as any in Bangarra’s formidable history. A section titled Night Sky takes place under a canopy of lights, alluding to Dawes’s knowledge of astronomy and perhaps to the Seven Sisters, a group of stars that features in Indigenous legend. And nothing is more affecting or effective than the image of a young woman mourning the departure of her friend, her head covered with his red coat as if prefiguring a Magritte painting.

In the last moments we hear the word Eora repeated and see a tableau that suggests permanance. There are only three people on stage and the language is soft to the point of fading, but they are there. Page calls this scene Resilience.

The meetings between Patyegarang and Dawes apparently lasted only a few months. Certainly Dawes was not long in the colony. He didn’t want to leave, by the way. He wanted to settle in Sydney but was denied permission and left in 1791. Just three years later he was commended by none other than anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce for his commitment to that cause. Of Patyegarang there seems to be no other trace.

Patyegarang runs in Sydney until July 5. Then Canberra, July 17-19; Perth, July 30-August 2; Brisbane, August 15-23; Melbourne, August 28-September 6.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on June 16.

Bangarra Dance Theatre, Nederlands Dans Theater

Bangarra Dance Theatre, Sydney, June 13; Nederlands Dans Theater, Sydney, June 12.

TO its eternal credit Bangarra Dance Theatre has never shied away from difficult material. Yes, it wants the riches of Aboriginal culture to be widely seen and appreciated, but it also tackles the seemingly intractable issues facing many indigenous Australians: the grog, violence, suicide, hopelessness, oppression, dispossession. I’ve been watching the company for more than two decades and each time I am touched by the presence of grace where there could so easily be despair. Even when the subject matter is as wrenching as the story of a young Aboriginal girl taken up and then abandoned by the governor’s family in colonial Tasmania (Mathinna, 2008) or the atomic tests at Maralinga in the 1950s (X300, 2007), the way in which it is presented is unfailingly generous and optimistic. To know and to think is to begin to understand. Not to mention that Bangarra productions always look so inspiringly beautiful.

Bangarra Dance Theatre's Blak. Photo: Greg Barrett

Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Blak. Photo: Greg Barrett

Bangarra is in the middle of touring its newest work, a triptych called Blak. It opened in Melbourne in May and is now in Sydney, where it has had to extend its season by a week. Canberra and Brisbane follow.

In many ways Blak is a follow-up to Bangarra’s Sydney Olympics Festival work, the two-part Skin, comprising Spear for the men and Shelter for the women. Blak has a similar structure and many of the same concerns, although comes with an extra section. It opens with Daniel Riley McKinley’s terrific all-male Scar, continues with Stephen Page’s Yearning for the company’s women, and then the two choreographers join to provide the whole company with a celebratory coda, Keepers.

Riley McKinley’s first work, Riley (2010), celebrated the art of his kinsman, Michael Riley, and was an unusually poised beginning. In Scar Riley McKinley doesn’t disappoint on his second outing, showing a genuine gift for structure, the telling stage picture and dramatic clarity. The piece starts with a compelling circle dance, viewed through a powerful, unsettling red haze (Matt Cox’s lighting). Seven men stamp, whirl and tumble in a way that speaks of ritual and the search for it. There are quick vignettes of menace and harm but also of the way contemporary life can learn from the ways of the past, if there is someone to teach them. Waangenga Blanco powerfully takes a central role here.

Yearning is a more diffuse piece with elements of varying strength. But as with 2000’s Skin – it had images that have stayed with me to this day – Page has created some indelible moments. The group opening is fairly anodyne but there are grittier sections that economically show how grim urban life can be: a top pinned to a line is an image of a life lost; women are hunted down by an unsparing spotlight; we hear traditional language emerge from a dropped telephone handset, calling to someone who doesn’t connect with it any more.

Keepers harks back to tradition in a way that’s been more memorably evoked in other works, although it brings the evening to a serene close with another of those knockout Bangarra visuals that are a hallmark this company  (Jacob Nash designed the unfailingly effective sets).

David Page and Paul Mac are the composers, always keeping the regular beat that brings to mind the pulse of the didgeridoo and mixing urban sounds with the lovely melody of traditional language – I say melody, because for us, and for so many indigenous Australians, its meaning is sadly locked away from us.

Bangarra, Sydney Opera House until June 29; then Canberra, July 11-13; Brisbane, July 18-27.

Nederlands Dans Theater

THERE are few companies as glamorous as Nederlands Dans Theater, hence the giddy excitement with which it is greeted by audiences. The dancers are sensual, sophisticated, muscular and theatrically and emotionally alert. In their bodies the elegant rigour of classicism meets and melts into contemporary movement of a particularly assertive kind. Add the attendant celebrity of NDT’s most powerful – we may even say overpowering – influence, choreographer Jiri Kylian, and you have an explosive mix.

It was recently revealed, by the way, that Kylian will withhold his works from NDT for three years from late next year. Not to punish but to challenge, as current NDT artistic director and resident choreographer Paul Lightfoot puts it. On the evidence of last week’s Sydney program – half Kylian, half Lightfoot and his co-choreographer Sol Leon – the hole left will be great and the challenge will be to see what NDT is without Kylian. Tough love indeed.

Two of Kylian’s famous black and white dances, both made in 1990, opened the program. In Sweet Dreams (1990) squares and rectangles of light fade in and out to reveal mysterious actions and interactions. To Anton Webern’s clamorous and astringent Sechs Stucke fur orchester – a bracing, stimulating score women sit on men’s backs, heads, feet; arms are widely spread and angled as if for flight; a couple is spied on high in the distance; apples are walked on, chased or stop up gaping mouths. What it means is up to you and your subconscious.

NDT in Sarabande. Photo: Prudence Upton

NDT in Sarabande. Photo: Prudence Upton

Sarabande followed without pause. It’s an aggressive, mostly unison piece for six men who groan, shout, slap and generally flaunt their masculinity although at times they are hobbled or challenged by it. Only when Bach’s music – the Sarabande from his second Partita – enters in extended form (it is heard at the beginning and then in snippets during most of the piece) is there a sense of calm. Otherwise, despite the references to Japanese ritual, the atmosphere is one of unrest and unease, cemented by the unison howls of laughter at the end. The NDT men looked spectacular: if you wanted you could see this as a piece about the burden of male beauty.

After Kylian the Lightfoot-Leon pieces looked lightweight and, in the case of SH-BOOM! (a 2000 revision of an earlier, shorter piece), tiresome. I found the caperings as amusing as a self-appendectomy except for a sweet nude dance from Cesar Faria Fernandes lit only by flashlight. It ends with a cheeky, boyish pull of the penis, which perhaps doesn’t sound like the greatest of moments but in this context it counts as genius; a human touch among the laboured schtick.

Shoot the Moon (2006) is an attractively staged little psycho-drama much enhanced by Philip Glass’s lovely Tirol Concerto for piano and orchestra. Revolving walls reveal two couples in various states of anguish and a solo man, also anguished. It says nothing more than that people have emotional issues, but does it stylishly. The plush, committed dancing was a treat, with the opening night cast including former Australian Ballet principal artist Danielle Rowe, who looked divine.

The NDT review first appeared in a slightly different form in The Australian on June 14.