Feat of passion, millenniums in the making

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Bangarra… thankful to survive in the mainstream. Photo: Daniel Boud

An indigenous dance company celebrates 30 years of existence and a heritage that spans thousands of years. Arts editor HELEN MUSA talks to its artistic director

BANGARRA Dance Theatre’s artistic director, Stephen Page, is in the mood for celebration. 

It’s the company’s 30th birthday and he’s put together a triple bill called “Bangarra: 30 years of Sixty Five Thousand”, a mighty tribute to its creators and the spirit of the country that inspired it. 

“We’re going all around the country with this – Perth, Darwin, Hobart, Brisbane, Sydney and Canberra and more – it’s amazing. Thirty years out of 65,000 and still maybe more,” Page says. 

Founded in 1989 by African-American dancer Carole Johnson, who was followed as director by Page in 1991, Bangarra was named after the Wiradjuri language “to make fire” and that’s just what they do, in dance.

“Just sustaining ourselves is a feat,” Page says. 

“Just surviving in the mainstream, let alone being an indigenous company… this is the only company of its kind – not to say there aren’t any other first nations companies, but we’re a full-time professional contemporary dance company that survives in the mainstream.”

While there are 28 major performing arts companies funded by the Australia Council, he says: “We’re at the lower end of that in terms of money, but we’re still there.

“We’re the only full-time indigenous professional arts company. We employ 18 indigenous artists full-time annually, and we have a strong educational program run by retired dancers.”

Bangarra, he says, has resident indigenous dancers to create artistic beauty, but even more than that, a unique sound. 

“That was created by my brother who is no longer with us,” he says in reference to the late David Page, composer of the company’s unmistakable music from the outset. 

“His legacy is so strong in this company and that makes me even more aware that we have to care for our coming generations,” he says.

Bangarra… thankful to survive in the mainstream. Photo: Daniel Boud

A special section in the program will be devoted to David in the context of the 40-minute work “Unaipon”, the work he co-created in 2004 with choreographer and Kokatha woman Frances Rings, when Stephen was the artistic director of the Adelaide Festival. 

“We wanted her to create a story and start unravelling the stories from her own country in SA… David Unaipon, who’s on the $50 note, was himself a Ngarrindjeri man from SA, our first inventor and scientist, Frances went deep into that.”

Page modestly estimates that they’ve done more than 15 works since 2004 (we counted 23 in fact) but time is moving on, and he’s well aware that there’s a new dance generation of dancers eager to recreate language and story on stage.

Even so, as the middle item, he’s planned an enticing jump into the immediate past with “Stamping Ground”, created by Czech choreographer Jiří Kylián with the Nederlands Dans Theater in 1983 after a visit in 1980 to observe a gathering of Aboriginal dancers on Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Amazingly, one of Bangarra’s greatest dancers, Djakapurra Munyarryun, was there, aged just eight. Documentary-maker Hans Hulscher recorded the event in the film “Road to the Stamping Ground”, a short extract from which Bangarra will screen.

It’s a first for Bangarra to stage work by an international guest artist, but Page has been a fan of Kylián since dance student days, and has since spoken about restaging the work to the great man, who told him: “I think you’re probably doing a much more interesting coverage of modern and traditional dance.”

“Jiří was the ‘it’ thing, the neoclassical boy-wonder who wanted to tell stories,” says Page. 

“He was the same age as I was when I took over at Bangarra.” 

An exciting development is that for the Australian restaging, Roslyn Anderson, the Brisbane dancer who was repetiteur for the original production in Amsterdam, has been here working with the company.

The last act of the evening is, in homage to the company’s name, named “To make fire”, a 39-minute selection of representative pieces put together by Stephen and the company’s head of design, Jacob Nash.

There’ll be part of “Matthina”, about a young girl who was removed, adopted into then rejected by colonial society, followed by former Bangarra dancer Elma Kris’s “About”, which follows the spirits of the four winds in the Torres Strait. 

Page’s work “ID” is based on personal observations of people tracing the bloodlines in connecting with the old cultures asking questions about identity.

 “It’ll be a good long evening of dance… it’s a good night if you like dancing, but if you don’t, you can have a little sleep,” Page jokes.

“Bangarra: 30 years of Sixty Five Thousand”, Canberra Theatre, July 18-20, bookings to canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 6275 2700. 


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Helen Musa
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