Left – Beau Dean Riley Smith and Kaine Sultan Babij (Macq). Photo – Edward Mulvihill. Cover – Bangarra ensemble (Nyapanyapa). Photo – Jhuny Boy Borja
Bangarra Dance Theatre has developed a spectacular reputation for delivering powerful Aboriginal works. Now in its 27th year, the company has gone from strength to strength, with their upcoming touring program taking in the sights of cultural centres such as New York and Paris. There is a weight of expectation, then, around Stephen Page and company’s most recent performance, OUR land people stories.
OUR land people stories consists of three pieces, emblematic of different stages of Aboriginal history and narratives. Macq, choreographed by Jasmin Sheppard, reveals the troubling side of one of Australia’s beloved historical figures, Lachlan Macquarie (a role filled ably by Daniel Riley), by blending powerful colonial imagery with spoken excerpts of his descriptions of Aboriginal massacre. The second act, Miyagan, is an exploration of kinship, developed as choreographers and cousins Beau Dean Riley Smith and Daniel Riley connected with their family to explore their heritage. The performance closes with a tribute to Aboriginal artist Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, carefully weaving Stephen Page’s choreography with images, voice recordings and the paintings of the Telstra Art prize recipient.
The dances are ably served by the outstanding production. Matt Cox’s lighting design brought out the best in the movement and mood, while Jennifer Irwin’s thoughtfully presented costumes assisted a number of beautiful moments. Jacob Nash’s set design was at its best during the Nyapanyapa piece, literally bringing a number of her works to life. However, with dance, it is the music and soundscapes that truly inspire the work, and in this regard OUR land people stories certainly impressed. Australian electronic pioneer Paul Mac, composer Steve Francis and the late David Page created pieces that both informed and enhanced the powerful content on stage. The ability of all three composers to weave a range of found recordings throughout their aural texts created a sense of place within each vignette that almost made the soundtracks breathe, and you could see the effect this had on the performers.
The choreography offered a range of stunning images that resonated strongly. Stephen Page devised with a broad palette of moods that took the audience from laughter to poignant reflection. It was hard not to get swept up in the energy and atmosphere of Miyagan’s crowd scenes. However, for my money, it was the brooding atmosphere of Macq that was hardest to shake. Jasmin Sheppard’s bittersweet cascade of bodies – men being laid to rest by their kin following a massacre ordered by Macquarie – was the heartbreaking highlight of the evening.
Just as a composer needs a musician to bring their imaginings to life, a choreographer is reliant on the skill of their dancers to inform the work. Bangarra’s cast of 17 were sensational throughout, making challenging movement appear easy. There was a grace and lightness about their performances – one could scarcely hear their feet on the floor, unless they wanted us to. It was clear that a significant amount of trust existed in the group, with numerous lifts, balances and partner work executed without fear to spectacular effect. While all the performances were strong, there were some definite standouts. Daniel Riley and Beau Dean Riley Smith’s partner work in Macq set the standard early, and the remainder of the male cast followed with aplomb. Yolanda Lowatta’s dynamic energy shone through in her every moment, while Elma Kris’ embodiment of Nyapanyapa found the right balance and timing across the range of scenes. But there were no weak links – evidenced by the standing ovation at the evening’s conclusion.
Bangarra Dance Theatre is an important Aboriginal voice in the Australian arts scene, but that is by no means the limit of its contribution. OUR land people stories is inspired work, telling important stories in spectacular fashion. Irrespective of the colour of your skin, your connection to country or your interest in the performing arts, OUR land people stories is the best kind of integrated contemporary performance on offer, and you would be well advised to accept the invitation.
Bangarra Dance Theatre presents
OUR land people stories
Venue: Heath Ledger Theatre | State Theatre Centre of WA
Dates: 20 – 23 July 2016
Canberra Theatre Centre
28 July – 30 July 2016
12 August – 20 August 2016
Arts Centre Melbourne
1 September - 10 September 2016