Ochres | Bangarra Dance TheatreLeft – Leonard Mickelo. Photo – Edward Mulvihull

This 21st anniversary production of Ochres still retains the magical quality that affected audiences so powerfully all those years ago. Choreographers Stephen Page and Bernadette Walong-Sene have created dance alchemy, combining indigenous cultural ideas and physical language with the language of contemporary dance in a show that is truly awe-inspiring.

Ochres refers to the earth in all its manifestations: the earth that provides foods for the hunters, food for the gatherers and the mother spirit.

Designer Jacob Nash has left the stage mostly bare, besides three gigantic, totemic vertical shards of paper bark that stand perpendicular to a huge mound of white ochre and invokes both alter and temple. On the enormous floor of the Carriageworks theatre this spare set has a sense of vastness, much like the Australian landscape, and it provides the dancers with a huge amount of physical freedom.

The company’s cultural advisor, Djakapurra Munyarryun, is the first to appear to perform a traditional land cleansing ritual, followed by Elma Kris who paints her face and hair with yellow ochre. Munyarryun is a venerated person and he appears throughout the dances as a reminder to the audience that this contemporary form has its roots in ancient rituals and ceremonies. His recurring presence on stage symbolises that the dance not only operates on the level of a work of art but is also rich with spiritual significance that dates back tens of thousands of years.

Spanning bush sound tracks, hip hop, speech, indigenous rhythms, song and contemporary instrumentation, David Page’s score is a work of sheer brilliance. So perfectly does it work to illuminate every nuance of the dancers that impossible to separate it from the choreography.

The production is divided into four pieces – the four colours of ochre.

The first is Yellow; it is performed by the women dressed in buttery satin slips. Unlike the sylphs they resemble, these dancers remain close to the ground, signifying not only their connection with mother earth, but different elements of women’s business: gathering food, giving birth, bathing, etc. This elegant, low key and largely introspective work is the starting point from which the production builds from the testosterone driven Black, to the comedy and sensual drama of Red to the dazzling, unforgettable finale White.

In a marked contrast, the second work, Black, is men’s business – the business of fighting, initiations, hunting and testing each other. The energy levels ratchet up. The choreography is more strident, assertively demonstrative and, in parts, more obviously draws upon recognisable indigenous ceremonial dance.

Creating a show based on colours must be a lighting designer’s dream and Joe Mercurio’s astute and textural lighting floods the stage with a richness of colours one moment, pulling back to subtle washes or simple pools of light the next.

Swathed in magenta lighting, Red brings the entire company together to explore the relationships between men and women, from cheeky, comical, adolescent flirtations, to lust, violence, power struggles and love. With a subtle nod to the high emotion of Spanish dance, this beautiful work is more overtly dramatic and is made up of a series of narrative vignettes.

As engrossing as the preceding works are, nothing prepares the audience for the impact of the final piece, White. It begins with a startling tableau of the dancers, covered from top to toe in white ochre. The white figures are eerie, compelling and exquisite. They are like hallowed spectres, made from earth. It is both the most abstract and the most ceremonial of the works.

Like Jimmy Chi’s Bran Nue Dae and Jack Davis’s No Sugar, Ochres marks a significant milestone in Australian performing arts history.

I last saw Ochres 21 years ago as part of the Canberra Theatre Festival. The Australian Arts Market was held there at the same time and producers, venue managers and festival directors from around Australia and throughout the world had assembled in Canberra to seek out the best Australian work to present. There were so many exciting works to see but the big buzz was around Bangarra’s Ochres. It was one of the hot tickets and considered to be a must see.

That production of Ochres was everything that I had been led to expect, but so much more. I still use it as a benchmark when watching contemporary dance. I expected beauty, innovation and skill and I expected the work to be rooted in indigenous traditions. What I didn’t expect was to witness such a profoundly spiritual experience.

Not only did it articulate a new language in Australian contemporary dance, but with this production, Bangarra joined the ranks of the Sydney Dance Company and the Australian Dance Theatre to become one of the great Australian dance companies. The rest of course is history as Ochres launched the company onto the national and international stage.

When the very emotional standing ovation finished on opening night and people started to move out of the theatre, I looked back at the rest of the audience. So many of them were beaming as though they had been transported to a state of grace. “Why have I never seen this company before?” asked the woman behind me of her partner. If you’ve never seen Bangarra before and you see this show you will be asking the same thing.

Bangarra Dance Theatre presents

Choreography Stephen Page & Bernadette Walong-Sene

Venue: Carriageworks | 245 Wilson St, Eveleigh NSW
Dates: 27 November – 5 November, 2015
Bookings: www.bangarra.com.au/ochres

Most read Sydney reviews

It is a skewed symbiosis that unravels before the audience as the interaction between such...