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.

‘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.