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.

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.