30 years of 65 Thousand
Venue: Sydney Opera House
Written By: Bangarra Dance Theatre
Directed By: Stephen Page
It has always been a privilege to be invited into the world of the Bangarra Dance Theatre, and especially so as the company celebrates its 30th anniversary by paying homage to the work of those who have contributed through their passion and energy to its spectacular success. In 30 Years of 65 Thousand, three contemporary works are brought together to showcase the strength and vibrancy of Bangarra’s gift to our nation.
The first tribute, Francis Rings’ acclaimed 2004 work “Unaipon”, is inspired by the life and dynamic intellect of Aboriginal inventor, philosopher and writer, David Unaipon (a graceful and powerful Tyrel Dulvarie), featured on our $50 note. The work is broken into sections each addressing Unaipon’s three motivating passions – his culture, science and religion – and in each Rings’ choreography – a balance of modern influences and Aboriginal heritage – is sensitively supported by the spoken word, David Page’s eclectic music selection and imaginative imagery and costume (Peter England and Jennifer Irwin).
It is a work of both contrast and interweaving, reflecting the ability of Unaipon to combine within his one body the opposing (at that time) cultures of Aboriginality and the West. Initially, we are told of his passion for the Western dream of achieving perpetual motion, and constant motion is the keynote of Rings’ conception, demanding the utmost from the bodies of the dancers.
The dreaminess created by the lovely fluid, rolling, grounded movements of the richly coloured and lyrical “Sister Baskets” intended to honour Unaipon’s Ngarrindjeri culture, is quickly dispersed by the lively and playful “String Games”. Such games, used to pass on survival skills by Elders, are transmuted into an explosive and imitative display as five male dancers leap and dive among tapes criss-crossing the stage, showcasing coordination of toes and fingers. From this, the dancers move into an exhilarating evocation of the laws of motion, the three principles exhibited literally through bodies in space.
The centrepiece, by Czech choreographer Jiří Kylián, is “Stamping Ground”, created in 1983 as homage to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, and its staging (Roslyn Anderson, assistant to Kylián) marks the first time Bangarra has performed a work by a non-Aboriginal choreographer. Following as it does upon Ring’s “Unaipon” which so clearly reflects modern influences in dance, “Stamping Ground” seems an almost natural extension of Bangarra’s repertoire.
The stage setting (Kylián) is simple and functional, allowing the dancers to slip between or roll under broad floor-to-ceiling plastic strips that form a backdrop. It is dark, occasionally shimmering as it moves, suggesting the sunset to sunrise gathering witnessed by Kylián on Groote Eylandt, but the costumes (Heidi de Raad) are a typically modern confabulation of black undergarments and ballet wear.
For Kylián the stage is his dancers’ “stamping ground” and his choreography does not attempt authenticity. The movement is noticeably different, as the dancers keep connection with the floor, sliding rather than lifting their feet and often maintaining a bended knee position with heels firmly to the ground, pulling the body downwards. The six dancers meet the challenge with panache as they do the evocation of various animals. There are moments of sly comedy but overall the Bangarra creation is an expression of joy in the dance that binds the community and ensures spiritual well-being.
The farewell piece, Artistic Director Stephen Page’s compilation “to make fire” – Bangarra is a Wiradjuri word for the source of energy that creates fire – honours the history of a company that has always sought to celebrate its origins in the oldest culture on earth and revitalise and reshape this culture’s relationship with place and within the nation.
Significant “moments” chosen from different works signify important experiences in the First Peoples’ understanding of their world, its permanence and resilience suggested through the unchanged but changing back-cloth as it becomes sea, or sky or land. The great beauty of the centrepiece, Elmer Kris’s “About” as it explores the spiritual connection between the Torres Strait Islanders and the four winds highlights the value of what was lost during colonisation. The stolen child, Mathinna in Page’s turbulent work of the same name, which introduces “to make fire” – adopted, rejected, dispossessed of her own culture – symbolises the violence of foreign occupation. The excerpts from “ID” and “Rush” bring the struggle for restoration into the present century, raising issues and posing questions, but are there solutions?
Bangarra itself has survived and thrived, and as the full company performs “Hope”, we hope that “clan Bangarra” – dancers past and present, creatives, cultural consultants – continues to give expression to an increasingly strong and diverse Indigenous renaissance. When this new generation of hardworking dancers return to receive their due, I for one would rather eager theatregoers pause before springing to their feet with shouts of acclamation and allow a few moments of silence in which to contemplate the unique energy of spirit that fuels Bangarra.