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.

My 2016 Artists of the Year …

Last year I decided to institute my personal Artist of the Year award. There’s no money attached, of course, and I think we’d have to say it confers only a modest amount of fame. I was rather thrilled , however, to see that my inaugural winner, the multi-faceted mezzo Jacqui Dark, was subsequently featured in her home town newspaper, the Courier in Ballarat, Victoria, so that was nice. I was a little dismayed that the Courier didn’t realise that I, too, am Ballarat-born – this played no part in the AOTY decision-making, I hasten to say – and my father was once editor of that newspaper. But it was a long time ago.

This year’s recipients – and yes, it’s a group I honour in 2016 – will be used to getting little or no money. They also mostly escape the glare of widespread publicity and can walk the streets unmolested by fans keen for a selfie. They are, however, heroes to me. They are the independent artists who simply will not go away and shut up, despite bearing the brunt of our Federal Government’s unforgiveable raid on the Australia Council in 2015. They put on new work, take creative risks, nurture talent, and their ticket prices are often astonishingly low. And they might be doing this in a profit-share arrangement.

It is not a good time for the arts in Australia. There were, of course, plenty of pieces of theatre, dance, opera and musical theatre I was very happy to see in 2016. A small number were exceptional, as were a good handful of performances. We can still manage that. What we don’t have is any true, deeply engrained reverence for culture as a necessity of life. That’s why some of our brightest and most interesting artists are working for tuppence ha’penny.

In this context I’d like to give a special shout-out to the Red Line Productions team who run Sydney’s Old Fitz Theatre; to Sport for Jove, which consistently punches way above its weight; to Hayes Theatre Co for giving a dedicated home to musical theatre; and to the wonderful Women in Theatre and Screen (WITS) group. WITS has been indefatigable in giving encouragement to and increasing visibility and opportunities for women in the arts.

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS photo Jeff Busby_1847

Esther Hannaford and Brent Hill in Little Shop of Horrors. Photo: Jeff Busby

So, best shows of the year?

Starting with the indies, Sport for Jove’s tremendously affecting Antigone; the absorbing revival of Louis Nowra’s Inner Voices from Don’t Look Away in association with Red Line Productions; and – this one surprised me – a deeply, deeply touching production of the 1928 R. C. Sheriff classic Journey’s End, from Cross Pollinate Productions in association with Norton Crumlin and Associates. I was very keen to see the play as it’s a name I keep coming across in reading about early 20th century drama, but I thought it might be drearily musty by now. Not in Samantha Young’s production, seen at Australian Theatre for Young People’s Walsh Bay base.

Also seen at ATYP was a marvellous production of the musical Spring Awakening, sensitively directed by Mitchell Butel. He might soon find he is in more demand as a director than he is as an actor, which would be a lot. The other huge musical theatre highlight was Little Shop of Horrors at Hayes Theatre Co. This was a mainstream production (Luckiest Productions and Tinderbox Productions in association with Hayes Theatre Co) that toured after its debut but it was born at the indie Hayes. Also on the music front, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra gave a glorious trio of concerts, conducted by David Robertson, featuring Stravinsky dance scores The Rite of Spring, The Firebird and Petrushka. Absolute heaven for this balletomane.

Two of Sydney’s smaller mainstream theatre companies, the Ensemble and Darlinghurst Theatre Company, provided some of this year’s most memorable productions. At the Ensemble, Tara Morice led a terrific cast in David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People; and I can’t tell you how riveting it was to see Patricia Cornelius’s gut-punching Savages at the Darlinghurst with a matinee audience comprised almost entirely of teenaged boys. I bet their post-show discussion was interesting – and one could feel just how forcefully this brilliant piece of writing about masculinity and pack behaviour struck them. Also at the Darlinghurst, Mary Anne Butler’s Broken was eloquently realised.

Gael Ballantyne, Tara Morice and Jane Phegan in GOOD PEOPLE, photos by Clare Hawley-26

Gael Ballantyne, Tara Morice and Jane Phegan in Good People. Photo: Clare Hawley

The invaluable Griffin Theatre Company is unfortunately struggling with pressing funding issues but soldiers on stoutly to provide a platform for new Australian work. And who would have thunk it? After the, ahem, disappointment of his playwriting debut Every Breath (Belvoir, 2012), Benedict Andrews came up with a fascinating portrait of a woman’s disintegration in Gloria.

Mainstream theatre wasn’t overflowing with riches. However, at Sydney Theatre Company I did love Hay Fever, directed by Imara Savage, who has a great feel for comedy; and the devastating production of All My Sons, directed by Kip Williams.

I won’t write about dance again (my post yesterday gave a round-up in that area) but will mention a few dance performances in my baker’s dozen list of stand-outs – Kevin Jackson as Nijinsky in John Neumeier’s ballet of that name for The Australian Ballet, Elma Kris of Bangarra Dance Theatre in the title role in Stephen Page’s Nyapanyapa, and Kristina Chan in her own work A Faint Existence for Force Majeure (one of the small-to-medium companies that has to reinvent itself after funding cuts). In theatre and musical theatre, in no particular order I was entranced by Robyn Nevin (All My Sons), Anthony Warlow (Fiddler on the Roof), Esther Hannaford and Brent Hill (Little Shop of Horrors), Alex Jennings (My Fair Lady), Heather Mitchell (Hay Fever), Sam O’Sullivan (Journey’s End), Marta Dusseldorp (Gloria), and Andrea Demetriades and William Zappa (Antigone).

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Heather Mitchell, Josh McConville and Helen Thomson in Hay Fever. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Opera Australia’s revival in Melbourne of the Neil Armfield Ring Cycle was extraordinary, and splendidly cast from top to bottom. The themes of greed and lust for power resonated particularly strongly. Earlier in the year the rarely performed Verdi opera Luisa Miller was given a striking production and had a dream cast; and My Fair Lady was deservedly wildly successful. Also from OA, the al fresco version of The Eighth Wonder – we sat in front of the sublime building that is the subject of Alan John and Dennis Watkins’s opera – was a sensational idea, superbly executed. One couldn’t help but think of Joe Cahill when, as premier of NSW, he convened a conference in 1954 to discuss the establishment of an opera house in Sydney. He said then: “This State cannot go on without proper facilities for the expression of talent and the staging of the highest forms of artistic entertainment which add grace and charm to living and which help to develop and mould a better, more enlightened community …”

We could probably do with a Joe Cahill or two right now.

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.

Dance Clan 3

Bangarra Dance Theatre, Bangarra Studio Theatre, Sydney. November 19.

ONE of the hot topics of conversation in dance is the under-representation of women in choreography. The situation is much better in contemporary dance than in ballet, but there is still disparity. Bangarra’s Dance Clan 3 therefore had a great deal going for it before a step was taken. The program, part of the Corroboree Sydney festival, consists of new works by four women from the company.

There is one overwhelmingly positive impression in that each work is distinguished by the clarity and resonance of the image-making. This isn’t terribly surprising given Bangarra’s sumptuous visual appeal, but good to see the DNA being passed on.

To take the pieces in order of appearance, Tara Gower’s Nala opens with a delightful vignette of being at the outdoor cinema in Broome that turns into a kind of clog dance with jumbo-sized potato crisp packets as footwear (trust me, it works). In Jasmin Sheppard’s Macq there is a strikingly lovely image of hanging men, all the more unsettling for the beauty of its composition. In Deborah Brown’s excellent film Dive, bulbous diving helmets are the entrée into a world of underwater magic. And in Yolande Brown’s Imprint, a woman’s body is tenderly adorned with the colours of the earth and there is a final gesture of great simplicity and wealth of meaning.

A scene from Jasmin Sheppard's Macq

Beau Dean Riley Smith and Daniel Riley in Macq. Photo: Greg Barrett

Also in the unsurprising category was the occasional over-reliance on familiar Bangarra shapes in Nala, Macq and Imprint. The choreographers are new to the game. But Bangarra’s style is deeply embedded in the bodies of its dancers and there’s no danger of mistaking this work for that of another company.  It would have been brilliant to see Gower, Sheppard and Deborah Brown rely more fully on their own interpretation of the house style, because their pieces were absolutely at their best when most individual.

To pick just a couple of moments, Macq powerfully and movingly sets colonial might against indigenous resistance and includes a potent, anguished solo for the oppressor. On opening night Daniel Riley was in astonishing form. In Imprint, which is inspired by the Batik project to support native title claim, cloth is used as tether, cocoon, personal covering and artwork. Senior dancer Elma Kris was, as she always is, a luminous presence.

For a studio season of short new works, Dance Clan 3 is remarkably rich.

Until December 1.

This review first appeared in The Australian on November 21.