OUR land people stories

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, June 16

Bangara Dance Theatre Our Land People Stories

Bangarra ensemble in Macq. Photo: Wendell Teodoro

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.

Bangara Dance Theatre Our Land People Stories

Bangarra dancers in Miyagan. Photo: Wendell Teodoro

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.

Bangarra Ensemble - Nyapanyapa, OUR land people stories - Photo by Jhuny Boy-Borja

Bangarra ensemble with Waangenga Blanco as the buffalo in Nyapanyapa. Photo: Jhuny Boy-Borja

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

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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.

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