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.

Zest and immediacy

Bell Shakespeare, Canberra Theatre Centre, June 15.

As Bell nears the end of its long run of Henry V, here’s what I wrote after its premiere in Canberra…

IN an air raid shelter during the Blitz in London, some young people delve into bookshelves and pull out Shakespeare. Their stage is a room with a blackboard and some rackety shelves, their costumes nothing more than what they can put over their school uniforms. As sirens blare and bombs fall, they put on a play about war.

There could be few productions of Henry V scrappier, less heroic or more affecting than this. Essentially a bunch of kids in a confined space put on accents and lark about, yet the simplicity and intimacy pierce the heart as surely as King Henry’s archers at Agincourt routed the French. Director Damien Ryan sees nothing worth exalting in Henry’s pursuit of conquest. He sees the damage and the never-ending trail of misery.

These things are of course explicit in Shakespeare’s text and in others of his history plays. At the end of Henry IV Part II Lancaster predicts that “ere this year expire/ We bear our civil swords and native fire/ As far as France” and Henry V ends with the Chorus reminding us that in the near future Henry VI “lost France and made his England bleed”. But the elan of Henry V’s rhetoric and his stunning success at Agincourt often lead the way in the theatre. The brilliant “Once more unto the breach, dear friends” oratory at the Siege of Harfleur and the magical St Crispin’s day speech – “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” – are hard to resist.

Ryan does resist, adding prologue of excerpts from Richard II and Henry IV to beef up the point. No matter what the talk of peace there is always conflict, often on the most convoluted of pretexts. It was a joy to see the complicated Salic Law explained by Keith Agius’s Chorus, teacher clad in a knitted cardie and wielding a stick of chalk.

The Chorus has earlier famously called on the audience to use its “imaginary forces” to summon vast fields, large armies, prancing horses and bellicose monarchs. “For ‘tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,” he says. But Ryan – whose productions for his own company, Sport for Jove, are always marvelously lucid – clearly sees that getting through all that virtually impenetrable Salic Law business would be a mighty slog if we were left to our own devices. The blackboard diagrams are really rather useful.

Apart from Michael Sheasby as Henry, everyone in the terrific 10-strong cast plays multiple characters in the style of a boys’ and girls’ own adventure yarn. Anna Gardiner’s design gives them little more than shelves to become city walls, a tavern, a king’s receiving room and barricades on a battle field and it works wonderfully. Not to mention practical: there’s a huge national tour coming up. The air of improvisation gives the action zest and immediacy and there is none of that dread impression of a production created solely for the purpose of being able to be packed up quickly and thrown in the back of a truck.

Sheasby is a light-voiced Henry who at first sounds like an attractive but unseasoned actor thrown by chance into a part. By the time Henry is skulking around at night eavesdropping on the troops to see what they think of him, and then as he woos the French princess Katharine (played with much wit by Eloise Winestock), Sheasby has blossomed nicely. But his primary role is not Henry, by turns benevolent and blood-thirsty as the political needs dictate, it is a boy playing Henry. The sense of distance between performers and performed is always strong, particularly as from time to time they repeat key points or throw in a stage direction or two to reorient themselves in the text.

Despite the appearance of robust mucking up this is delicate work and it is beautifully choreographed, not just physically but also in the quicksilver changes of mood and beautifully judged musical accompaniment. Steve Francis composed the score and created the sound design; actor Drew Livingston, who was the amusingly dogged Fluellen among other roles, wrote vocal music of grace and beauty.

The inspiration for the setting comes from reports of plays and entertainments being put on in shelters during the Blitz, when war rained down relentlessly on the heads of non-combatants and was greeted with stoic resistance. Ryan uses the imagery potently and at one point deeply shockingly. There’s a lot more going on than plucky Brits outwitting Johnny Foreigner as Ryan seamlessly layers past and present.

This is not a production in which Shakespeare’s language reigns. Henry’s big speeches are dialed down and are just part of the messy flow of war. I think Ryan’s chief point is that the boys in the shelter aren’t yet old enough to be seduced by that “little touch of Harry in the night”, bestowed to bolster courage and commitment on the English soldiers. But the Blitz happened in the early 1940s. Perhaps the following year, or the one after, they’d be old enough to be sent to fight.

Ends in Canberra June 28, followed by an extensive national tour ending in Sydney November 15.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on June 17.