Patyegarang, Bangarra Dance Theatre

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, June 24

Jasmin Sheppard and Thomas Greenfield. Photo: Jess Bialek

Jasmin Sheppard and Thomas Greenfield. Photo: Jess Bialek

Patyegarang is a luminously beautiful work in its staging, its performance and the story it tells.

Choreographed by Stephen Page as the centerpiece of Bangarra Dance Theatre’s 25th anniversary year, it is the first Sydney story that the company has tackled – and what a fascinating “first contact” tale it tells.

The inspiration was the relationship between Patyegarang, a 15-year woman of the Eora nation, and Lieutenant William Dawes, an astronomer, linguist and mathematician who arrived with the First Fleet and became the colony’s timekeeper. Patyegarang befriended Dawes and taught him her language and about her culture – which he detailed in his diaries, rediscovered at the University of London in 1972.

In creating this 70-minute work, Page successfully avoids literal story telling. Instead the piece unfolds in haunting, almost dreamlike fashion through 13 scenes, which take different themes that evoke the spirit of the land and people before the arrival of the early settlers, their culture, the notion of time, conflict, intimacy, resilience etc.

The choreography is lovely, combining the grounded traditional movement now so closely associated with the company with contemporary dance. The contrast between the movement for Dawes and the other indigenous men could have been highlighted a little more initially but there are some stunning solos, duets and ensemble numbers.

Jasmin Sheppard is radiant as Patyegarang, dancing with a lithe, gentle, expressive fluidity. A tiny figure next to guest artist Thomas Greenfield who is a strong, striking presence as Dawes, they are gorgeous together. Elma Kris and Waangenga Blanco are also standouts.

The Bangarra ensemble in Patyegarang. Photo: Jess Bialek

The Bangarra ensemble in Patyegarang. Photo: Jess Bialek

Jacob Nash’s stark, rugged set, Jennifer Irwin’s costumes and Nick Schlieper’s richly coloured lighting make for a work of stunning visual beauty, while David Page’s score, which combines traditional, classical and electronic music with spoken words, has a mesmerising, pulsing quality.

Dawes built up a relationship of trust with the local Aboriginal people. He wanted to stay in Sydney but was ordered home after he defied an order to take part in a punitive expedition against them. Patyegarang’s grief as she lies with his red jacket over her head is here a deeply moving image.

Richard Green, a Dharug man who acted as the cultural advisor for the project puts it simply: “Dawes was different, he listened.” Patyegarang intimates what might have been had there been more people like him. A beautiful work.

Patyegarang plays in Sydney until July 5 then Canberra July 17 – 19, Perth July 30 – August 2, Brisbane August 15 – 23 and Melbourne August 28 – September 6.

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Dance Clan 3

Bangarra Studio, Pier 4, November 21

Beau Dean Riley Smith and Leonard Mickelo in Nala. Photo: Greg Barrett

Beau Dean Riley Smith and Leonard Mickelo in Nala. Photo: Greg Barrett

For Bangarra Dance Theatre’s contribution to the inaugural Corroboree Sydney festival celebrating indigenous arts and culture, artistic director Stephen Page commissioned four new works for Dance Clan 3 – a program he initiated in 1998 to nurture storytelling by the company’s artists.

In a bold, pro-active move, he decided this time to commission four of the company’s senior female dancers – Deborah Brown, Yolande Brown, Tara Gower and Jasmin Sheppard – all of whom rose to the occasion with pieces full of beauty and promise.

Performed in the intimate space of the company’s rehearsal studio on Pier 4, the evening began in high spirits with a playful scene at an outdoor cinema in Gower’s Nala. Jumping from deckchairs to dance with giant crisp bags on their feet, it got the night off to a joyous start. Drawing on the love affair between her grandparents in Broome, Nala then turned more serious with duets suggesting social and cultural divide as progress takes its toll on the land and way of life.

Sheppard’s Macq, centred on and around a large table, explored the 1816 ‘March of Macquarie’ on Aboriginal people after Governor Macquarie’s well-intentioned social policies fell apart, with the might of the colonial power set against the anguish of the Aboriginal people. Daniel Riley was a commanding presence as Macquarie, some of the choreography around the table was wonderfully inventive, while a stunning image of hanging men shook you with its simple beauty and shocking, haunting power.

Beau Dean Riley Smith and Daniel Riley in Macq. Photo: Greg Barrett

Beau Dean Riley Smith and Daniel Riley in Macq. Photo: Greg Barrett

Deborah Brown choreographed a dance film called Dive about pearl fishing in the Torres Strait, shown on a large screen hoisted up on ropes. Interweaving film extracts with choreography featuring two dancers in large diving helmets and dancers depicting the pearls, she created a wonderful underwater world.

Yolanda Browne’s Imprint, inspired by the 1978 women’s Batik project to support native title and Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s yam-dreaming stories, used images of threads, weaving and fabric as a woman is covered with the colours of the earth, eventually becoming part of the land.

All the pieces had a distinctive feel, but they were staged so they flowed one into the other without breaks.

Performing as a true ensemble, the dancing was lovely with Elma Kris shining, while the music by Huey Benjamin, David Page and Steve Francis, set design by Jacob Nash, costumes by Jennifer Irwin and lighting by Matt Cox supported each piece beautifully.

Though the Bangarra style, aesthetic and vocabulary was understandably evident in each work, all four choreographers showed moments of real individuality, suggesting much promise and potential. The night I saw it the performance certainly struck a chord with a packed audience who sat rapt and applauded wildly at the end.

Dance Clan 3 plays at Bangarra’s Studio, Pier 4 until December 1. Bookings: bangarra.com.au

Hunter Page-Lochard interview

Hunter Page-Lochard made his first appearance for Bangarra Dance Theatre in Praying Mantis Dreaming at six months of age, when his father Stephen Page, the company’s artistic director, played a bit of a trick at one performance by substituting him for the baby doll usually used.

“The story was that he comes on stage and hands me to another dancer and the light fades on them. He didn’t tell the other dancer and apparently as the lights were fading I reached my hand up to touch his face so it got a real reaction,” says Page-Lochard.

Now 20, Page-Lochard is making a guest appearance in Bangarra’s new work Blak. In the interim he has appeared in their productions of Skin at age seven and Boomerang at age 12.

Hunter Page-Lochard (centre) with Leonard Mickelo, Luke Currie-Richardson and Daniel Riley McKinley in Blak. Photo: Greg Barrett

Hunter Page-Lochard (centre) with Leonard Mickelo, Luke Currie-Richardson and Daniel Riley McKinley in Blak. Photo: Greg Barrett

His professional career began in an episode of Water Rats when he was five. “Ever since then I’ve loved performing,” he says.

His other credits include, among others, Bloodland for Sydney Theatre Company, Wayne Blair’s award-winning short film The Djarn Djarns, and the feature films Bran Nue Day and The Sapphires.

Later this year he will seen in a new film called Around the Block by writer/director Sarah Spillane in which he stars alongside Christina Ricci and Jack Thompson, playing a troubled Aboriginal teenager who is helped by his American drama teacher.

“It’s like a Billy Elliot (meets) Hamlet but instead of dancing he’s a drama student that has one foot in crime because of his older brother,” says Page-Lochard. “It’s a nice little film. It’s not too dark and it’s not too fun-loving.”

Page-Lochard grew up “with the smell of theatre backstage. I was always around it,” he says.

Like his father, his American mother, Cynthia Lochard, was also a dancer, performing with New York City Ballet and Sydney Dance Company and is now one of the leading Pilates instructors in the southern hemisphere. But despite his heritage, Page-Lochard acts more than he dances.

“Michael Jackson and Justin Timberlake are my teachers. I never had technical training. Mum and Dad tried and tried to get me into ballet classes when I was little and dance classes but I just didn’t want to dance. I wanted to act and create things,” he says.

“So being with these guys (Bangarra) for the last four months has been quite tough because I’ve had to do ballet and I’ve had to do contemporary. I can’t deny that it’s in my blood but it’s still really tough. I’m sure my mum can still do a better arabesque than I can.”

Blak has three sections: Scar, choreographed by Daniel Riley McKinley with the male dancers, which explores young men’s rite of passage to manhood and initiation from an urban perspective; Yearning, choreographed by Page with the female dancers, which explores domestic violence, youth suicide and the connection of the female spirit to the land; and finally Keepers in which the dancers pay homage to the land and the legacy of their elders.

The company spent a week and a half on Bremer Island in North East Arnhem Land before the start of rehearsals where they workshopped ideas.

“The girls went off and did some women’s business like weaving and the boys took the time to get together and (discuss) just normal questions – what is a man to you? What is your version of initiation in the modern world? Is it sharing a beer with your Dad for the first time? Or having sex? It’s a lot different to the traditional males (initiation) up there,” says Page-Lochard.

Page-Lochard, who is featured in Scar, says that his character embodies the six other men. “He is their flaws and traits. He makes up all of them and carries them through whenever they need to be carried. He’s always there. In a sense he’s kind of that spirit character who was in Skin and Boomerang.”

Page-Lochard is aiming for a future in film. He did a one-year screenwriting course at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS) and hopes to study screenwriting at the New York Film Academy. He has already written numerous screenplays that he’s keen to develop.

“I definitely want to make a film,” he says. “I have just as many (creative) visions as Dad does but not for the stage – it’s more film.”

Blak, Sydney Opera House, June 7 – 22; Canberra Theatre Centre, July 11 – 13; Queensland Performing Arts Centre, July 18 – 27.

An edited version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on June 2.