Bennelong | Bangarra Dance TheatreLeft – cast of Bennelong. Cover – Beau Dean Riley Smith. Photos – Daniel Boud

There was a palpable sense of occasion in the foyer of the Sydney Opera House Drama theatre on opening night of Bangarra’s new work Bennelong.

For Australia’s premier indigenous dance company was to tell the story of a pivotal figure in the history of Australia on a stage built on the very point of land on which he once lived, and which was named after him. Wongal man Woollarawarre Bennelong.

It is clear a lot of meticulous research went in to the creation of this piece, as the creative team searched to uncover and reveal the essence of this tragic figure, weaving it into a piece of dance theatre that sought to inform our present by exploring our past. Full credit to the production team for their diligence and commitment to this quest. 

But as piece of dance – this was its weakness I felt. In the past Bangarra has taken us on breathtaking flights of spirit where the dancers bodies seem to channel the very energy of the earth that anchors this great culture. But tonight the work seemed weighed down with the weight of historical events, and the responsibility of Bennelong’s legacy.

It is certainly a tale worth telling, this man torn between different worlds, yet falling outside them both. It has such resonance with the horrific disparity between the two cultures that still exists today, and the men and women who are forced to traverse a path through both.

It was as visually stylish a production as we have come to expect from this great company. Jacob Nash’s design were arresting and beautifully lit by Nick Schlieper.

The story was told in a series of dance vignettes that highlighted key moments of Bennelong’s life, and for me the best choreography and dancing came with the segments least defined by factual incidents. The opening Birth sequence, The Onslaught (of smallpox), and Resistance. Released from the shackles of event, these moments could physically explore the human experience with the grace and skill that Bangarra can deliver so well. It was in these moments that dancers Waangenga Blanco and Luke Currie-Richardson quite stole the show for me with their incredible ability to infuse pain and struggle into the very sinews of their flesh. 

Beau Dean Riley Smith created a Bennelong that appeared slight and buffeted by events around him. Limber and often twisting, a physical theme that seemed to echo again and again in the choreography as the character twisted between worlds. His acting skills were clear in the final moments, but I was craving to see those passions reflected through movement rather than staging. I felt there was a solo missing near the end of this piece, where we get to engage with this man one on one, and join with him in his struggle to come to terms with the changing world around him. 

I felt curiously untouched by this story. And as a descendant of the invading race I expected I should have felt grief, guilt, and be left with huge respect for this man, whose world was torn apart by events beyond his control. Tonight the events were clear to me, and the parallels that continue for today’s indigenous peoples were unavoidable – but the personality of the man himself remained enigmatic. Perhaps that was intentional. Nevertheless, there is much to admire in this production, not the least some very fine dancing by some very talented dancers. The opening night audience certainly thought so, giving the company a standing ovation.

Bangarra Dance Theatre presents

Choreography Stephen Page with the Bangarra dancers

Venue: Sydney Opera House
Dates: 29 June – 29 July 2017

Canberra Theatre Centre | 3 August – 5 August 2017
QPAC Brisbane | 25 August – 2 September 2017
Arts Centre Melbourne | 7 September – 16 September 2017


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