Arts / Bangarra hits the operatic heights

Bangarra Dance Theatre’s “Bennelong’… “I drop everything when I’m contacted by Bangarra,” says composer Steve Francis. Photo by Vishal Pandey

COMPOSER Steve Francis knows he has big shoes to fill.

A long-time collaborator with the late composer and Bangarra Dance Theatre legend, David Page, Francis is in charge of the music for the grand operatic work “Bennelong”, the story of the Eora man who was catapulted into European society by Governor Arthur Phillip, that’s coming to Canberra shortly.

“It sounds different from other Bangarra works and it’s different for me as well,” Francis says, describing the operatic-scale score for “Bennelong” as “incredibly eclectic, with 17 pieces altogether”, part of it sung by the Sydney Philharmonia Choir and one piece made from an old sea shanty which, with the help of dramaturg Alana Valentine, he turned into a jig.

“Bennelong” is a mixture of musical techniques and spoken language, including poetry by Valentine, and traditional song by cultural adviser Matthew Doyle, a gifted songman himself, whose voice is heard in the show’s final piece titled “1813”, the year of Bennelong’s death.

“That was really co-written by Matthew and me,” says Francis, describing the process of writing a song for Bennelong, who is depicted as a father, brother and intermediary.

For the birth of Bennelong, Francis found a song for Doyle to sing that Bennelong actually sang in London, which was notated by a contemporary harpist.

Elsewhere, Francis employs the techniques of Western music.

Francis first met the brothers David and Stephen Page in 1996 when they were working on a piece for the Australian Ballet called “Alchemy”. Up to that point, he says, David had been doing all the soundtrack work in his own studio, but he pulled in Francis, a noted sound engineer and producer, to mix the music and a friendship developed.

In 1997 Francis was involved in their show “Fish”, which premiered at the Edinburgh Festival, and later worked with Stephen and Frances Rings on the score for “Walkabout”, for which he won a 2003 Helpmann Award. He went on to compose the music for David’s one-man show, “Page 8”, in 2004 and, in the same year, scored an even more famous one-man show, “Gulpilil”.

“I’ve been with Bangarra ever since, normally working on collaborating with David then last year and this year, working on my own,” he tells “CityNews”, a reference to the fact that David died in 2016.

“It was a life-changing thing to meet David and Stephen,” Francis says. “Although I used to write songs, I wasn’t in the arts so to speak, but now basically what I do is theatre, film and TV work, but I drop everything when I’m contacted by Bangarra.”

Francis credits David Page with having created a unique music theatre genre.

“It was the mix he made of language, traditional vocals with contemporary sounds like synthesisers or drum beats or orchestra – anyone who has worked with Bangarra knows it and we honour that style; it has become a signature sound,” he says.

While he believes it is “great to have a template to work to”, he concedes that it’s quite a bit to live up to, saying: “David and the extraordinary work that he created, whether conscious or subconscious, is always there when you’re creating a score for Bangarra, but we do our best”.

“Bennelong”, Canberra Theatre, August 3-5, bookings to or 6275 2700.

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