music / Canberra Symphony Orchestra, ACTEWAGL Llewellyn Three, Llewellyn Theatre, July 18. Reviewed by GRAHAM McDONALD
LOOKING to the night sky, south to the Southern Cross, you might see the Dark Emu.
That’s the mixture of negative space and dust cloud in the spot where Scorpio meets the Milky Way and it’s also the title of Bangarra Dance Theatre’s newest production, heading for Canberra soon.
Bangarra director Stephen Page got the idea of creating a dance around this curious symbol of negative force from Bruce Pascoe’s best-selling non-fiction book, “Dark Emu: Black seeds: agriculture or accident?”, which depicts a sophisticated, rich civilisation in Australia preceding white arrival, putting paid to the idea of a simple hunter-gatherer society.
He’s not the only one to have thought of it. Canberra historian Bill Gammage did much the same in his mammoth work “The Biggest Estate on Earth”, so it’s no surprise to find that the pair are great mates, touring as a double act to literary festivals and constantly exchanging ideas.
That stereotype of uncivilised man waiting to be civilised has been, in Pascoe’s view, a convenient lie for those who invaded the country – “The stain is deep in our chalk,” he says.
Page, in what he calls a “creative and emotional response” to Pascoe’s words, has turned the myth of the hunter-gatherer on its head in a 70-minute dance work, co-choreographed with Yolande Brown and Daniel Riley, that celebrates “the heritage of careful custodianship”.
The 18-strong ensemble of dancers tells interconnected stories in a series of thematic gambits encompassing earth, sky and ocean. A sample of the segment titles will give an idea – “Dark Spirit of the Sky: Looking into the void”, “Bogong Moth Harvest: Oiling and feasting”, “Trampled by Indifference: A scourge of hooves, of flies and disease”, “Whales of Fortune: The pinnacle of reciprocity, trust is shared with the cetaceans” and, finishing on a positive note, “Baiame – The spirit of resilience and hope, singing up the land”.
With music by Steve Francis, sets by Jacob Nash and costumes by Jennifer Irwin, the company hits its straps in this formidable work, which succeeds “Bennelong”, one of Bangarra’s most important works to date.
Pascoe’s influence on the work is incalculable, but when “CityNews” caught up with him recently, he was modest about his input.
A Yuin, Bunurong and Tasmanian man who lives at Mallacoota, he’s made himself a champion for the revival of Australia’s first languages. He won the Prime Minister’s Young Adult Literature Award in 2013 for his teenage novel “Fog a Dox” and the NSW Premier’s Book of the Year and Indigenous Writer’s Prize in 2016 for “Dark Emu”.
But getting involved in a dance work? Hardly, until some of the dancers alerted Page to the content of “Dark Emu” and the pair met at a Sydney Writers Festival.
“According to Stephen, I said it would make a good dance – I wish I had said it,” Pascoe says. “But anyway, we got together, worked out an idea and then Stephen went away with his dancers and the writer Alana [Valentine] and I put something together… she is a very competent and experienced writer.”
Pascoe has stayed well away from the stage performance.
“People expect me to be nervous, wondering what will happen to my work, but I knew that they would represent my ideas, so I went along with it,” he says.
“I just talked to the dancers about culture and some of the elements.
“I don’t make much intervention into the dance, they’re good at doing certain things, so let them do it.”
But those central ideas were critical. The story of the Emu, consort of creator Baiame, is found in the lore of Kamilaroi and Wiradjuri people and elsewhere.
The “Dark Emu” he explains, is not a constellation, it’s the dark space near where Scorpio crosses the Milky Way – a dark space. To see the “constellation”, astronomers advise, you have to look at the dark dust-clouds, not the stars.
Pascoe sees a clear parallel with the narrative about Aboriginal culture and history, “looking between the stars, so to speak”. And between the stars, what you find is a full and rich civilisation.
“It does sound difficult, turning this concept into a dance, but I have total confidence in Stephen and the company – they do some pretty extraordinary things,” says Pascoe.
“Dark Emu,” Bangarra Dance Theatre, Canberra Theatre, July 26-28.