Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, June 16
Bangarra Dance Theatre’s new triple bill OUR land people stories takes you to dark places but it is also a moving celebration of the resilience of the human spirit and the healing power of art.
Together the three works – each featuring a simple but striking set by Jacob Nash, beautiful costumes by Jennifer Irwin and moody lighting by Matt Cox – create an over-arching Indigenous narrative from colonial massacre, to the survival of identity through the strength of kinship and connection to country, to artistic success and expression today.
While Nayapanyapa marks Stephen Page’s 25th year as artistic director of the company, the other two works are by emerging choreographers drawn from the ranks of Bangarra dancers. The fact that together they make for such a satisfying program is an encouraging sign for the future.
The program begins with Macq by Bangarra dancer Jasmin Sheppard, which premiered in 2013 as part of Dance Clan 3 but which has since been further developed. Opening with mourning women gathered around a body, it is set in 1816 when Governor Lachlan Macquarie, believing that his well-intentioned social policies for “the natives” weren’t working, sanctioned the massacre of D’harawal people near Appin as punishment for attacks by “hostile tribes”.
Staging much of it on and around an extremely long table with a warped chandelier and tea set and the ensemble in costumes that parody colonial society, Sheppard has created some wonderfully inventive choreography. She has a very keen visual sense and several resonant images etch themselves deeply in the heart and mind. The haunting way she evokes hanging men – held up from behind by other dancers who represent both the trees they hang from and the fellow tribesmen who cut them down – is shocking yet tender. Red-coated soldiers with rifles crawling on their bellies are like a cross between contemporary commandos and lizards.
Daniel Riley is superb as the conflicted Macquarie in a tortured solo and a fierce, combative duet with Beau Dean Riley Smith as a D’harawal man, while Nicola Sabatino is moving as a mourning woman.
Macq features a stunningly evocative score by David Page, the company’s ground-breaking music director who died suddenly in April. The Sydney season and national tour of OUR land people stories is dedicated to his memory.
The pioneering way David (brother of Stephen Page) combined traditional and contemporary music with spoken language (both Indigenous and English) and song has become a distinctive Bangarra feature and his influence can be felt in the scores for the other two pieces in the program: Miyagan with music by Paul Mac and Nyapanyapa with music by Steve Francis.
Miyagan is about the kinship system of the Wiradjuri Nation in NSW to which its co-creators, dancers Riley and Riley Smith, both belong. Set at the Talbragar mission in Dubbo in the early 1900s, where their great-great-grandfather lived, they use the entire company of 17 to evoke the complex web of family ties as part of which each person has their role and responsibility.
Nash’s overhanging branches with feathered leaves are visually arresting and there is some wonderful costuming by Irwin. The choreography has a springiness to it that feels a little different from much of the very grounded Bangarra style and there is some ebullient unison group work. Not all the story-telling is as clear as it might be (are the hairy-headed figures guiding spirits?) but there is much to enjoy.
In Nyapanyapa, Stephen Page celebrates the life of acclaimed visual artist Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, a Yolngu woman from North East Arnhem Land. Nash’s staging evokes several of her paintings, including one telling of her traumatic goring by a buffalo as a young girl. Through various short scenes including a joyous community dance where Nyapanyapa struggles to join in we watch her find herself through her art.
The dancing is powerful across the board but the radiant Elma Kris brings enormous heart to the title role in a gorgeous work with lovely touches of humour.
To watch Nyapanyapa Yunupingu herself take slowly to the stage on Page’s arm for the opening night curtain call was a moving end to an inspiring night.
OUR land people stories plays at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until July 9. Bookings: 02 9250 7777 or www.sydneyoperahouse.com. It then tours to Perth, July 20 – 23; Canberra, July 28 – 30; Brisbane, August 12 – 20; Melbourne, September 1 – 10. Details: www.bangarra.com.au
A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on June 19