Bangarra Dance Theatre is a company that has a long history. Giving back to the land is one of the most fundamental relationships that it upholds and furthermore, this is done through story, song, and dance as a means by which we honour the past and continue to enrich our present and future.
In 2010 I interviewed Stephen Page (and subsequently many others of the Bangarra family) for the production of earth and sky. It was a celebration to mark Bangarra’s 20th anniversary, the choreographic debut of Daniel Riley and the importance of women’s voices being heard through the skill and stories reflected in the work Frances Rings.
Over these five years I have found myself along with so many others at regional and urban, national as well as international levels, privileged to listen, watch and learn from Bangarra; to engage not only in eye-culture as a visual narrative unfolds but also to engage in ear-culture – to hear the throbbing pulse of Indigenous stories powerful and resonant in our world today.
This year marks Bangarra’s 25th anniversary and for this year Stephen Page has chosen to focus on a story that is inspired by the very land upon which the company resides, a work that acknowledges and gives back to the peoples of the Eora Nation.
“We are now in our third decade and it seems time to honour the huge legacy that we have to this nation,” says Page, “And to do so we want to share the story of Patyegarang and William Dawes, an iconic part of our history that comes from this land.”
But this is not a romanticized Pocahontas and John Smith Disney story; in fact Page is determined that the sprit and strength of Patyegarang and her voice is heard through this piece.
“I wanted to find her message, her spirit, her totem. How would she have felt to know that in 1971 these diaries would be found, and in 12 years later the Eora would see their language written for the first time. That is my purpose and my challenge.”
An astronomer and mathematician Dawes is supposed to have spent approximately three months with Patyegarang and the diaries that he kept of their time together (although written through the lens of his own experience, memory and understanding) nevertheless offer a glimpse into the weaving together of different stories from two different cultures.
“Exchanging stories about land and sky allowed them to listen, hear and even taste language,” explains Page. “He learnt a lot of his language through children and there is a naivety and innocence of how he documented his diaries, short little potent exchanges that offer a window into that world.”
Indigenous performance is not a static entity, here in Australia it is based upon over 40,000 years of performance history that exists outside of euro-centric frameworks. One of Bangarra’s greatest strengths is that the spirit of resilience but also creativity continues to shine through it’s work.
For this year’s story of Patyegarang Bangarra are ready to embrace new challenges in taking a story chronicled through non-indigenous perspectives yet by setting it in a way have an opportunity “to flip it into black eyes” to give audiences a chance to look at the land and this story through the eyes of the Eora people.
Drawing upon the talents of his team including David Page’s evocative soundscapes, Jacob Nash’s unique set designs and the skills of Alana Valentine as dramaturge, there is an atmosphere of excitement brewing at Walsh Bay.
“We’re creating a beautiful motherland of textures of clay, using a series of props and artefacts, some of which are stylized and we’re creating a contemporary humpy which will have its own aesthetic. All these have their own journeys of development and will come together to play their own part in telling this story – the white man’s soles walking on that ground for the first time created a sequence of events that we must explore, their solutions were decisions were not humane because they lacked the ability to connect to the land, they could not hear her story.”
Because ultimately, story really is what Bangarra is all about.
It is a company that has successfully developed a name for itself both on a national and international scale but its approbation always has come from members of the community. From the young people, from the Elders, from those who have benefited from outreach programmes, been inspired as young dancers, by any person who believed that as an Indigenous person success in the arts was not just a remote possibility, it was a tangible reality.
I speak to this personally and confidently not solely as an arts journalist having spoken to many elders, artists and audience members over the years but also as someone who shares the work of Indigenous Australian artists with other First Nations communities overseas.
As I write this interview I am in Saskatoon, Canada a visiting scholar in the theatre department at the University of Saskatchewan witnessing the effects of polar vortexes which translate to minus 52 degrees.
The day after I had this skype conversation with Stephen Page (across a 19 hour time difference) I gave a public talk where the majority of my audience were First Nations people. I showed a number of examples of contemporary Indigenous performance from Australia, excerpts from conversations and videos, and they were all received with great enthusiasm.
But one of the conversations I had post-talk was strangely reminiscent of my conversation with Page. A Cree woman came up to me and said (in regards to a segment of Riley):
“That company Bangarra, they can show our young people it is possible to walk between two worlds. To be deeply connected to their culture and still walk with their heads held high in a predominantly white world, because we have culture, and story and song. When I watched those performers dance I knew that this is contemporary Indigenous dance, this is the way we can share our stories with the world in new ways, remembering the hurt and anger but showing the world we are proud people, talented and sophisticated and we belong, right here, right now.”
Those words and many others who had similar impressions of all the different kinds of work coming out of Indigenous Australia made me realize that Stephen’s closing comments of Patyegarang were more true than ever before:
“We want our Patyegarang to be that woman. Perhaps it’s a romantic ultimate but a woman who is a subtle tornado, deeply connected to her culture yet walks in the white world with finesse and aplomb. She can choose to wear her Jimmy Choo shoes if she likes, have her own apartment, converse flawlessly in whatever language both her traditional one and whatever else she chooses, because she is an empowered woman. And all women deserve the right to choose who they wish to be.”
Bangarra never pretends to be the best, or the exclusive or the only company capable of telling these stories – it simply puts story and the community first and does so unashamedly at every level: local, national and international.
With Patyegarang the company chooses to honour the stories of the Eora Nation, a narrative of an empowered woman and the ongoing need for conversations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, what better way than to mark its 25th anniversary?
Bangarra Dance Theatre presents
Artistic Director Stephen Page
Sydney Opera House, June 13 to July 5 2014
Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com | 02 9250 7777
Tickets: $29 – $89 plus transaction fees
Canberra Theatre Centre, July 17 to 19 2014
Bookings: www.canberratheatrecentre.com.au | 02 6275 2700
Tickets: $30 – $63 plus transaction fees
State Theatre Centre of Western Australia, July 30 to August 2 2014
Bookings: premier.ticketek.com.au | 1300 795 012
Tickets: $35 – $75 plus transaction fees
Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC), August 15 to 23
Bookings: www.qpac.com.au | 136 246
Tickets: $24.50 – $65 plus transaction fees
Arts Centre Melbourne, August 28 to September 6 2014
Bookings: www.artscentremelbourne.com.au | 136 246
Tickets: $29 – $89 plus transaction fees
Bangarra, Patyegarang. Jasmin Sheppard and Thomas Greenfield. Photo – Greg Barrett