I have no right, by birth, language, or country, to write a review of this show. I am a white Australian who was not even born here. However, Wudjang: Not the Past is, among other things, a powerful wake-up call to non-indigenous Australians like me. After almost 250 years we shouldn’t need it, but we do. As a musician in my own culture, my own language, and from my original and my adopted country, I have been entrusted to write. It is my duty, and I approach it with deep humility.
In Wudjang: Not the Past, Stephen Page, the long-time director of Bangarra Dance Theatre, and the dancers, actors, musicians, and other collaborators, have created something extraordinary. Steve Francis, who with Alan John wrote the music of this show, muses: “Is it a dance opera?…does it even matter what we call it? It is Bangarra.” But I would venture to say that the profound, genre-defying thing they have done, as they sing “While the land is here, we are” is this. They have created ceremony.
There are two stories which map onto each other all through the show. The first is the discovery of ancestral bones, uncovered by earth-moving operations during the construction of a dam in Yugambeh country (in what is now south-east Queensland), their removal and reburial in a sacred place. The second story is the exploitation of land and people by white colonists, mainly from my own country of origin, and the spiritual struggle of the indigenous people to find a purpose, a present, and a future (not separate concepts) for themselves and their land.
The dancing and acting is simply incredible. Each performer arises out of the ground, is part of it, evoked and carried forward by language, in a series of songs which are connected by what I would call, from my tradition, passages of recitative. These songs are sometimes in Language and sometimes in English, but always condensed, intense, unflinching. The choreography is enthralling, and especially in the case of the two dancers who dance the spirit of Wudjang and her “daughter”, rivetingly beautiful. One of the songs is one of very few traditional songs in Yugambeh, which was given to David Page, the director’s brother, by their father, and it is this song, The Men Carry Fire, that is the beating heart of the performance.
“Wudjang is our mother as the land is our mother” Stephen Page, himself a Yugambeh man, writes in the preface to the performance. He then goes on to explain the concept of “…not the past”. He speaks of the performance – and even in Western tradition performance is a moment when time as we understand it collapses – showing that Wudjang is vividly in the present. “The trauma and pain we have suffered in the past, that too is carried all too freshly and manifested all too tragically in the present”.
I saw this performance on 26th January, the day commemorating the first settlement of this continent by Englishmen. Earlier that day one, or a few, F!!! Fighter-bombers had deafened Central Sydney with their barbaric, brutal display of violence. They seemed to say, “We may not have intended to invade in 1788, but we certainly do now”. And yet, underneath, in the very ground, there does seem to be another spirit moving today. That spirit is embodied in Wudjang: Not the Past, as Wudjang’s bones are returned to country, to the accompaniment of the most beautiful music in the whole show.
“The way forward, the way that Wudjang teaches”, Stephen Page continues, “is to own and speak our difficult truths together, to draw strength from our solidarity with those who respect culture, and to reconnect with patience.”
Ah. Perhaps I have some small right to write this review after all. “In solidarity with those who respect culture…”
Bangarra Dance Theatre & Sydney Theatre Company present
Wudjang: Not the Past
by Stephen Page and Alana Valentine
Director Stephen Page
Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre | Sydney NSW
Dates: 18 Jan – 12 Feb, 2022
Tickets: $80 – $120