In my opinion a great performance is something that not only has memorable moments, but something that has so many of these that in one’s mind they seamlessly flow into each other and you realize that what you remember is almost the entire show. This is the part of the performance that lives on – the memory of it. Bangarra Dance Theatre’s performance Mathinna, is one such unforgettable performance.
Originally inspired by the Thomas Bock portrait of a young Aboriginal girl in a red dress, Bangarra’s Mathinna tells the true story of the short, confusing and tragic life of the portrait’s subject. Born on Flinders Island in 1835, and adopted by Governor Sir John and Lady Franklin, Mathinna was alienated from her indigenous culture and thrust into Tasmania’s social aristocracy at an early age. Just a few years after her adoption, Governor and Lady Franklin moved from Tasmania, leaving Mathinna behind, and when she was twelve, she was sent to the Queen’s Orphan School. Leaving the school at 16, Mathinna went to live at the Aboriginal settlement at Oyster Cove. By age 21, she was selling her body for alcohol, and one night when drunk, fell into the water and drowned. Wherever she went she never fit in – she was an orphaned aboriginal with aristocratic upbringing; denied her true culture and abandoned by the culture she was forced into.
The opening moments of Bangarra’s Mathinna are inspired. Using a very thin spot, tightly focused on a rock downstage, the illusion is created of something much larger. The illusion is magnified when a single hand slowly moves over and caresses the rock. A lithe man ripples over the rock’s surface, coming to standing, looking like giant god of old. More lights are brought up on a suspended tree branch upstage. Three, tightly curled bundles hang beneath the branch, like bats sleeping. As they unfold, the audience witnesses three men dance upside-down, hanging by their ankles, with such controlled, precise and organic movements that your jaw cannot help but drop. And this was just the beginning.
This incredible opening scene was perhaps the most abstract out of this rather literal performance, yet it was certainly not the only breathtaking moment. What followed was a swirl of colour: men dancing with spears, looms of red silk and frighteningly intense hair braiding, a beautiful waltz in brightly coloured gowns, and a tragic demise surrounded by liquid demons.
The choreography was varied and apt. While Stephen Page took on a literal representation of the story, he certainly did not limit the choreographic choices. Even in scenes where the story is quite easy to read, such as where Mathinna came from, his choreography still displayed a wide range of technique and complexity, with multiple dance sequences being performed simultaneously, and perfectly aligning with every nuance or spike in the music.
Lighting was used to great effect, not only in the opening scene, but also for example in the nursery room scene: the lighting alluding to one side of the stage where her aboriginal father waited, while at the same time setting a sense of forced hospitability and false brightness to the room. The set and props were relatively minimal but highly effective. All in all, great production value and intelligent direction.
Bangarra’s Mathinna is one of their best works yet.
Bangarra Dance Theatre
Venue: Playhouse, QPAC
Season: 29 May - 7 June
Times: Wednesday – Saturday, 7.30pm; Saturday 7 June at 2pm.
Tickets: $24.50 to $55
Bookings: 136 246 or qtix.com.au