Belonging and identity: Stephen Page addresses the big questions

When Stephen Page was a child, his fair skin and hair marked him as very different from his brothers.

As he told Monica Attard in an interview some years ago, “I was a throwback on my mother’s side, so my complexion was really fair compared to all the other kids, and you know, I had blond hair right up until I was 12…

“It was that thing of exterior, you know. They thought like I was adopted or something and my brothers used to tease me when I was little and say I belong to the milkman down the road, and so I used to cry every day, because all I wanted to be was Aboriginal. But my father used to tell me to ignore them”.

Memories like this stay with you forever and in Page’s case, sparked a flame about Aboriginality and ultimately the creation of Page’s latest work, ID.

First, a bit of background. Page has said that the idea for ID, the second of two pieces that make up Bangarra Dance Theatre’s new production, titled Belong, came when he was creating Fire, the retrospective that celebrated the company’s 20th anniversary.

He realised that about a hundred dancers had passed through the ranks of the company. Thinking about their backgrounds, he also thought it would be a good idea to recall his own – “to go to my own backyard” as he put it.

Page grew up in a big family in the Brisbane suburbs. Money was tight so Page and his siblings “pretty much lived in our own backyard”.

Through a series of nine vignettes, ID explores Aboriginality, starting with Initiate, in which black and white phantom figures – including an older woman – are projected onto a large vertical, slatted blind from which each of the figures (except for the older woman) emerges to show his or her own story and personality.

Why does the older woman remain behind the blind? Perhaps she was already sure of her own identity.

The movement style of each dancer includes isolations, Graham contractions, deep bends, sharp angles, ripples, rotation of the shoulders and flexed feet. Each dancer is dressed in variations of black and white – an indication, maybe, that they had not yet found a their full identity.

The second section, Caste, opens with a man entitled Butcher, cracking the limbs of a figure on a table, the brief scene resembling a gruesome snippet from the TV series, Silent Witness, in which autopsies are conducted with voyeuristic close up reality. (At least I think they are. I always turn away from the screen).

Segments called Fractions and Class 7B follow. In the first, the dancers’ bodies are marked with fractions, such as 1/3, 1/16, or 7/8, the labels indicating (I think) their degree of Aboriginality.

Yolande Brown, who has red hair and pale skin, is a dancer in this section and while I didn’t catch her label, she recently explained in an interview that she had Aboriginal, French, Irish, English and Welsh ancestry and welcomed questions about her identity.

“People question why I choose to relate to my Aboriginal heritage,” she said. “When people are surprised I’m indigenous, that’s fine. I get to let them know more about our country’s history on a personal level. I’m the perfect case study.”

In Class 7B, seven dancers clamber on tiered seating as if to watch a movie or sports game. A bucket that looks like a giant popcorn container appears, but instead of a snack, it holds paint used to mark each dancer’s face a darker colour.

ID also explores social issues. In Discriminate, Patrick Thaiday, dressed in jeans, appears to be a sacrificial victim. A plastic bag is placed over his head, he dies, is wrapped in fabric, and rolled out of sight.

ID ends with the projected image of a woman very slowly applying white symbolic lines on her forehead.

Page’s collaborators are his brother David Page, who created a soundscape that includes the spoken word, Jacob Nash, set designer, Emma Howell, costume designer, Matt Cox, lighting designer and the playwright, Alana Valentine, who was dramaturg adviser.

There is one echo of Bangarra’s big hit show, Ochres, in Elma Kris’s About, the first work in the double bill of Belong, and that’s the duality of the first two ensemble elements, one representing female energy and the second male energy and physicality.

About is based on the four winds that sweep the Torres Strait Islands, where Kris was born.

To illustrate the first wind, the cool breeze called Zey, five women wear sea blue while the dancers in the second wind, Kuki, wear tattered black costumes with feathers, and dance against a background of tangled wire – the whole representing the wind that comes at a time of tropical storms and rough seas.

Naygay, the third and most gentle wind, has a silver and gold, shimming aspect, beautifully rendered by both designers, Howell and Nash, and finally, comes the dusty and sandy white of the gusty south easterly, Sager.

The designs of About represent a powerful element of the whole as does the music by David Page and Steve Francis.

About and ID sit well together, the first a poem to the traditions and elements of the islands, the second, Stephen Page’s answer to the question he asked himself: “What is the real Aborigine?”

Bangarra is so well established now, both nationally in Australia and internationally, I think it might be interesting for its choreographers to experiment with more contemporary urban themes and, much as I admire the music of David Page and Steve Francis, it might also be beneficial for the choreographers to occasionally work with a wider range of composers.

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