Bangarra Dance Company’s Ochres: Imprinted into the cultural history of Australia

Ochres has officially come of age with a revival 21 years after its premiere.

Choreographed in 1994 by Stephen Page in collaboration with Bernadette Walong-Sene, Ochres propelled the relatively new Bangarra Dance Company into the front row of the performing arts companies of Australia.

A few years after its premiere, Ochres was chosen as one of the first works to be studied within the dance syllabus of the New South Wales’ Higher School Certificate.

At the time I was teaching dance history and appreciation for the HSC at SCEGGS Redlands in Sydney, and with the students, we spent many hours watching Ochres on a video.

Who can remember those videos? The clunky black cassette was carefully inserted into the VCR and played, backwards and forwards, until we knew, or thought we knew, every step of Ochres.

But the Board of Studies examiners were not so much focused on the steps as they were on the themes, history and references in the work.

Sitting around a big table the students discussed colours, and the meanings of the four colours of Ochres – Yellow, Black, Red and White – if you can describe black and white as “colours”.

Following every avenue, we were in danger of being lost in the minutiae. But when the exam approached, the detail gave way to the overall emotional impact of Ochres.

Many years later, the impact is just as strong.

The revival in November/December this year was staged in Carriageworks, a perfect place for the work.

Looking downwards to the stage, the audience’s focus was on the simple central setting in which the Ochres narrative takes place, but the audience could also see the bigger picture as the space around the dancers reached out to the walls on each side of the stage.

The effect was like watching the colours of a painting hung on a big white wall in an art gallery.

The first cast member, Djakapurra Munyarryun, returned to Bangarra to reprise his role in Ochres, and, with the dancer, Elma Kris, he opened and closed the work

Djakapurra’s presence was extraordinary, reminding me of the way he stood alone on the stage of New York’s City Centre Theatre before the American premiere of Stephen Page’s Rites, performed by the Australian Ballet and Bangarra in 1999, and his equally compelling appearance at the Sydney Olympics opening ceremony a year later.

Ochres’ revival has an entirely new cast, except for Munyarryun, but the choreography by Page and Bernadette Walong-Sene remains much as it was in 1994.

Walong-Sene’s choreography for Yellow, the first of Ochres’ four parts, is performed by seven women, representing the female spirit as they depict the nurturing of children, feeding, gathering, bathing and birthing.

The women appear as sleepers who wake, emerging from a circle as they explore the space around them and feel the water from the rivers falling on their bodies.

Grounded at first, they sliver around the floor, moving like sea creatures or snakes before they rise to their feet to move with energy and purpose.

Yellow gives way to Black, and from women’s rites to the energy and rites of men.

Black is the most powerful of the four parts, with Djakapurra leading the ensemble of seven men who at times crouch, and hide behind bushes, making animalistic gestures, their hands resembling paws.

They assemble in parallel lines, throwing sticks to one another and using the sticks as percussive instruments.

In the original description of Black, the choreographers referred to “the call and pain of initiation…that can only be viewed from a distance”.

Black could also be seen as a hunt for prey or an escape from the enemy.

The dancers appeared as both the attackers and the attacked.

Page and Walong-Sene collaborated on Red and White, the final two parts.

Red represents the relationship between men and women, from the time they play flirtatious games of ‘catch me if you can’, to the way they support one another at life’s ending.

Of the four sections of Red, Youth, Obsession, Poison and Pain, the most engaging are the first and last.

Youth is just as I remember it from years ago, with playful girls, Nicola Sabatino and Yolanda Lowatta, teasing the boy, Beau Dean Riley Smith, grabbing his red shirt, twisting it like a skipping rope and playing tug of war with no one really losing or winning the games.

The final, segment, Pain, was eloquently danced by Daniel Riley as a man at the end of his life and Elma Kris as his comforting, earthly angel.

White is danced by the entire cast who appear as ghostly spirits but also watchers, whose eyes are extremely focussed. At the end of White, we hear the words ‘watching and waiting’ repeated in song many times.

In the video a very young Stephen Page and Bernadette Walong-Sene talk about their inspirations for Ochres.

The word ‘classic’ is overused and abused, in much the same way as the annoyingly prevalent word ‘iconic’.

Ochres is, however, a classic, a work that not only marked the flourishing of Bangarra in the early days, but also an important landmark in Australia’s cultural history.

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Bangarra Dance Company, Ochres, Black, Djakapurra Munyarryun and artists of Bangarra, photo © Jhuny Boy-Borja

Bangarra Dance Theatre, Ochres, White, Tara Robertson and artists of Bangarra, photo © Edward Mulvihill

Bangarra Dance Company, Ochres, Red, Daniel Riley and Elma Kris, photo © Edward Mulvihill