Bangarra marks a milestone through the language of dance

In 1991, the year Stephen Page became artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre, The Canberra Times introduced the company to its readers.

The article began: “Very little of the traditional culture of the Aboriginal people or Torres Strait Islanders has really permeated the urban European masses dwelling on Australia’s south-eastern seaboard.

“Much attention has been focused on the multicultural nature of Australian society, but for the most part this means multi-European culture. The need for the immigrant cultures in Australia both to integrate and to preserve their heritage is now widely accepted.

“With the indigenous cultures however, integration has tended to be seen as a one-way street: either they adopt European social and cultural values or they do not.

“Sad to say, the arts community has no better track record in this regard than other sectors of our society”.

Bangarra, wrote the reporter, was an exception.

These thoughts, while honestly expressed, now seem so dated that they could have been written half a century ago rather than the ’90s.

Founded by Carole Johnson in 1989, and now celebrating its 25th year, Bangarra is a vitally important part of the Australian dance landscape and although the company this year farewelled Deborah Brown and Daniel Riley – two exceptional dancers – Stephen Page remains at the helm and is now the longest serving artistic director of any major professional dance company in Australia.

To mark Bangarra’s silver anniversary Page has choreographed the company’s first work that’s based on a Sydney story, the encounter between William Dawes, a lieutenant who travelled to Australia with the first fleet, and Patyegarang, a young indigenous woman whom he befriended.

Patyegarang taught Dawes, an astronomer and surveyor, the language and customs of the Eora people. They shared a curiosity and gentleness in the way they discovered and explored one another’s worlds and while the dance work depicts a romance between them that’s not the heart of the story.

Patyegarang is told in 13 episodes but the most significant is the last, not so much for the choreography, but in the intent. Titled Resilience, it expresses a resolution to the story: “Always was, always will be, our land”.

The creatives supporting Page are an accomplished team – Alana Valentine, dramaturg, Jacob Nash, set designer, Jennifer Irwin, costume designer, and Nick Schlieper, lighting designer.

Nash’s simple but evocative sculptured setting resembling the sandstone cliffs of Sydney is lit by Schlieper to represent the mood and direction of each episode, with the changes of lighting revolving from orange to blue and red.

Irwin’s costumes reflect a midnight blue sky, a blood red intrusion of white men into the Aboriginal community and an earthiness in the dresses of the women as they explore both their land and the sea.

Choreographically, the first few episodes were similar, dominated by spiralling movements – rotations of the shoulder and hip socket, body rolls, legs shaking and wobbling as the knees bent into a plie, and the ebb and flow of bodies that appeared boneless despite their muscular strength. The repetitive choreography gave way to a much fiercer, more angular, ritualistic dance for six men.

Page hasn’t reinvented the choreographic wheel in Patyegarang, but his storytelling is clear and inventive without resorting to mime that would look ludicrous in such a work. And that’s a significant achievement as the work is about spoken language.

There are, however, some awkward moments, firstly when Dawes (Thomas Greenfield) has nothing to do but stand and watch the dance action around him, and then when he and Patyegarang (Jasmin Sheppard) emerge from and return to a pod-like tent in which they’ve obviously been intimate. Valentine, who has done extensive research on the story, has said their relationship was ‘playful’ but I’m not sure it was necessary to add the sexual attraction element to an already strong story.

David Page’s music drove the work, but at times the busyness of many elements, strings, electronic music, traditional songs, the spoken word, drums, gunshots and the occasional chime, tended to dominate the production rather than underline the narrative.

Sheppard and Greenfield excelled in their roles with Greenfield, a guest artist, adapting remarkably well to the Bangarra style of movement. His commitment to the role was clear and his interpretation sincere.

Waangenga Blanco, who may now be the longest serving dancer in Bangarra, is always a compelling presence on the stage, but never more than in this work.

After the Sydney season ends on 12 July, the company will tour Patyegarang to Canberra, Perth, Brisbane, and Melbourne.

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Sydney Cove looking west. Dawes’ observatory has the large flag on the right. Artist unknown, State Library of NSW

Jasmin Sheppard and Thomas Greenfield, Patyegarang, Bangarra Dance Theatre, photo © Jess Bialek

Thomas Greenfield and Leonard Mickelo, Patyegarang, Bangarra Dance Theatre, photo © Jess Bialek

Patyegarang, Bangarra Dance Theatre, photo © Jess Biale