OUR LAND PEOPLE STORIES
OUR LAND PEOPLE STORIES, Bangarra Dance Theatre at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, 16 June 16-9July 2016, touring to Paris and New York, and nationally around Australia. Photography by Jhuny Boy-Borja: above - the Ensemble in Nyapanyapa; right: Elma Kris and company
The opening night of what will be a six month tour was a sadly historic occasion: originally intended as a celebration of Stephen Page’s 25th year as Bangarra’s artistic director, the tour’s triple bill is now also dedicated to his much loved elder brother and the company’s musical backbone for all these years.
His loss, across Australian contemporary music, as well as Bangarra’s unique sound, is immense and the legacy and influence is obvious in this night of a uniquely and vital Australian art form.
First up, is the debut work as choreographer for company dancer Jasmin Sheppard. She continues in Stephen Page’s line of senior dancers moving to new roles and Macq, originally seen in 2013, is a classic piece of Bangarra-style storytelling. The opening sequence is visually and dramatically powerful: women gathered and moving in unison around what is gradually revealed to be a prone man across whose body a woman (Nicola Sabatini) weeps.
What follows is a duet between the mourning woman and her murdered man. She slowly, sinuously and hopelessly moves around him, under his body and through his legs in a piteous effort to raise him from the dead. She is dancing with death – it’s a profoundly moving sequence.
The reason for the death is Governor Lachlan Macquarie (Daniel Riley) – first seen at a feast given for the local indigenous people and attended by his gaudily clad men and ladies (among the 100s of inspired costumes designed for the production by Bangarra stalwart Jennifer Irwin).
Mac is the indigenous point of view of the Appin Massacre of 1816 and the imagery and storytelling are often fiercely beautiful. The 25-minute work is a sign of things to come from Sheppard and the musical collaboration with the late musical director and mentor is a melange of electronic, traditional and voice of a tinny Tannoy.
The second work of the first half was created by Daniel Riley and his enemy in Macq, the sole Dharawal figure at the feast, Beau Dean Riley Smith. Titled Miyagan, it’s a more obviously abstract piece than the first. Contemporary dance is fused with traditional movement and sound – clapsticks in particular in an atmospheric soundscape by Paul Mac – to lead the eye and ear through explorations of kinship, individual and family, and place. Again, Miyagan suggests promise for the future with these two dancers-turned-choreographer.
The best is left to last, however, and after the interval, Stephen Page demonstrates – with Nyapanyapa – why he is the dominant figure in Australian contemporary dance. (“Australian” meaning the distinctive and immediately recognisable form, as opposed to the western tradition.)
The work is a tribute of the life and work of Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, a senior Gumjati artist from North East Arnhem Land. The old lady was in the audience on opening night and she was celebrated on stage at the close of the piece which brought to life some of her tree bark paintings.
Collaborating with set designer Jacob Nash, lighting designer Matt Cox and Jennifer Irwin, Page and the troupe conjured up thrilling accounts of Nyapanyapa’s story pictures. In particular her near-fatal youthful confrontation with a wild buffalo (Waangenga Blanco). As portrayed by the fabulous Elma Kris, the work follows the artist through episodes of her life from youth to closer to the present in movement that allows the dancer to explore her own depths of emotion and physical understanding.
Again ranging across traditional, electronic, country and some exquisite sampling of Corella voices, Steve Francis’s score is spacious and generous, allowing the dancers and the artworks to shine. It’s a memorable work and a memorable night. Recommended.