*Please Note: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this review contains the names of people who have passed away.
Bangarra Dance Theatre’s triple bill Bangarra: 30 years of sixty five thousand is an important evening of dance work, celebrating three decades of groundbreaking performance from Australia’s leading First Nations dance company, and the only Indigenous-led arts company amongst the country’s 28 major funded performing arts organisations.
Highlight: Bangarra dancer Rika Hamaguchi gives a breathtaking solo performance in Unaipon. Photos: Daniel Boud
This show is a testament to Stephen Page’s resilience and artistic vision in his 28-year tenure as Artistic Director. Page, a Nunukul and Munaldjali man, has led Bangarra since 1991, two years after it was set up by National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association (NAISDA) founder Carole Y. Johnson, and NAISDA graduates Rob Bryant and Cheryl Stone.
This performance showcases a highly trained, impressive new generation of First Nations dance artists now carrying the company’s work forward. Since Page’s first full-length work Praying Mantis Dreaming premiered in 1992, the hallmark of Bangarra’s work has been a distinctive blend of contemporary dance combined with traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island dance movement.
From the hypnotic opening image of dancer Tyrel Dulvarie floating through the air behind a scrim in Unaipon, to the stunning closing section of Page’s To Make Fire, the dancers committed themselves to the Bangarra hallmark style and the work of Jiří Kylián in Stamping Ground with skill, commitment, and conviction.
Intricate ensemble sections ... played on themes of weaving, famous in Ngarrindjeri culture, and string games which were used by Elders to pass on cultural knowledge to youngsters.
The first work of the evening, Unaipon, choreographed by recently appointed Bangarra Associate Artistic Director Frances Rings, was inspired by the work of the Aboriginal inventor, philosopher, writer and story-teller, Ngarrindjeri man David Unaipon. Unaipon first premiered as part of Bangarra’s 2004 season Clan.
Rings’ extensive background in both contemporary dance and traditional movement was clearly evident in the intricate ensemble sections which played on themes of weaving, famous in Ngarrindjeri culture, and string games which were used by Elders to pass on cultural knowledge to youngsters.
A highlight of this work was a series of breathtaking solos, performed by Tara Gower, Rika Hamaguchi, Lillian Banks, and Dulvarie, in a section showcasing the impressive designs of costume designer Jennifer Irwin, and lighting designer Nick Schlieper.
The second work of the evening was Jiří Kylián’s acclaimed Stamping Ground set to Carlos Chávez’s quirky percussive score Toccata para Instrumentos de Percusión (1942). This work was choreographed for the Netherlands Dans Theatre in 1983 after Kylián witnessed a gathering of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dancers on Groote Eylandt in 1980 and pays homage to the spirit of connectedness to culture and country in Indigenous dance.
Bright future: The performance showcases an impressive new generation of First Nations dance artists.
The work was performed with playfulness and precision by the dancers. As Stephen Page remarks in the program notes, the performance by the Bangarra dancers, who are all descendants of Aboriginal and Torres Strait peoples, is an important part of ‘the cultural life-cycle’ of this work.
The final act, Page’s To Make Fire (the English language translation of ‘Bangarra’), rounded off the evening with excerpts from some of the company’s key works over its 30 years of existence.
This collage of dance pieces pays tribute to an impressive and sustained body of work that provides embodied evidence of the importance of Stephen Page’s and Bangarra’s dedication to creating works on country in consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and only later bringing these creations into an Australian and international dance context.
The legacy of Russell Page, one of Australia’s most gifted dancers, is evident in the lithe physicality of the young male dancers in the show.
The influence on Bangarra’s artistic development of Stephen Page’s brothers, Russell and David, who passed away in recent years, is also an integral and celebrated part of this production. The legacy of Russell Page, one of Australia’s most gifted dancers, is evident in the lithe physicality of the young male dancers in the show. Two of these dancers are 2019 Russell Page Program Graduates. Participants in this initiative are mentored through this professional development program set up by Bangarra in memory of Russell Page in 2015.
David Page, as Bangarra’s Musical Director, created evocative musical scores for 27 of the company’s productions, including Unaipon and To Make Fire, mixing traditional language, songs, and instruments with electronica, hip-hop, classical music, and soundscapes sourced from the natural world.
The show runs through NAIDOC week and for those who want to celebrate the work of this major Australian First Nations dance company this show Bangarra: 30 years of sixty five thousand offers the perfect opportunity to do so. Catch it if you can!
Bangarra: 30 years of sixty five thousand is on at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until 13 July before a national tour taking in all state and territory capitals. See here for dates.
Dr Jon Burtt is a Lecturer in Dance and Performance in the Department of Media, Music, Communication and Cultural Studies.