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.
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.
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.