‘Belong’. Bangarra Dance Theatre

Bangarra Dance Theatre has always made dance that links back to the heritage of two groups of indigenous Australians: the Aboriginal communities of mainland Australia and the communities of the Torres Strait Islands. Belong, the company’s latest work, is no exception. Each of the two works that comprise the program, About choreographed by Elma Kris, and ID choreographed by the company’s artistic director Stephen Page, represents one of those streams of indigenous heritage. And, while the overall focus of the program is on the question of indigenous identity, the two works couldn’t be more different.

About opens with Kris, shrouded in a cloud of white mist, taking the role of a storyteller. She appears at the beginning of each section of the work and introduces us in turn to the four winds of the Torres Strait on which the work centres. Through Kris’ flowing choreography we encounter ‘Zey’, the cool south wind, ‘Kuki’, the powerful northwest wind, ‘Naygay’, the calm and gentle north wind, and ‘Sager’ the gusty, dominant southeast wind. Each has its particular energy, which is conveyed choreographically, through changing emphasis on male or female dancers, and through the way in which each wind is envisaged through colour and costuming.

About is without political overtones. Even as the Sager wind spirits confront each other as powerful forces, the work remains concerned with moods and a changing sense of spirit and movement. ID on the other hand is an emotive and often confronting work. Examining what it means to be an indigenous person in the 21st century, Page has structured his work as a series of episodes each commenting on some aspect of urban Aboriginal life. An indigenous man being tortured by prison guards is tough viewing and David Page’s music, interwoven with text, is unrelenting and adds an extra layer to a harsh and uncompromising work. The work does, however, contain some less politically challenging sections to balance the harshness. One uses a collection of hollowed out objects like tree trunks, or even slit gongs, and evocative lighting by Matt Cox to set the scene for some dancing that conveys more a passion for life and one’s culture than issues of social injustice.

I have long been an admirer of the strong and distinctive visual ‘look’ of a Bangarra production, which was established early in Bangarra’s performance history by the design team of Peter England (sets) and Jennifer Irwin (costumes). It is being carried forward now by others including, for Belong, Jacob Nash (sets) and Emma Howell (costumes). Stylistically and in the way both costumes and set occupy space there is more than a passing nod to the England/Irwin collaboration. But I greatly admired Nash’s backcloth (or was it a projection?) in About for the sections ‘Nagay’ and ‘Sager’. Streamer-like, the black and white image wound and swirled its way upwards across the backcloth at times looking like snake skin, at times like ancient bark, and at times like a meticulously executed linocut. Like the wind, and with the help of Matt Cox’s lighting, it appeared to be a changeable and unpredictable entity.

But if the ‘look’ is same, same but different, Bangarra dancers have moved ahead in leaps and bounds. Now with older role models and mentors, and perhaps with improved or more access to training, the current company is dancing very well indeed. Stand out performances came from Daniel Riley McKinley as the Initiate in ID and Kris and Waagenga Blanco as the Wind Spirits in the Sager section of About. Kris and Blanco in particular had a powerful connection between them as they danced, which many classical dancers might (or should) envy, and Blanco’s ability to fill the space around him with movement was exceptional.

Michelle Potter, 13 August 2011

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