Beau Dean Riley Smith in Bennelong.' Bnagarra Dance Theatre, 2017. Photo: Daniel Boud

‘Bennelong.’ Bangarra Dance Theatre

29 June 2017. Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Bennelong, Bangarra Dance Theatre’s most recent work, may well be the company’s most ambitious production to date. Yet in saying that, I can’t help feeling that it may also be its most powerful, its most emotive, and its most compelling show ever.

Stephen Page, as choreographer and creative storyteller, has taken the life of Wongal man, Woollarawarre Bennelong, as a starting point: Bennelong the man feted in many ways in early colonial society, and yet denigrated in so many other ways by that same society. Page presents a series of episodes in Bennelong’s life from birth to death. In those episodes we experience a range of emotions from horror in ‘Onslaught’ as large sections of the indigenous population are wiped out by an epidemic of smallpox, to a weird kind of fascination in ‘Crown’ when we watch Bennelong interacting with British high society after he arrives in London.

There is a strength too in how Page has ordered (or selected) the events. ‘Onslaught’ for example, follows ‘Responding’ in which the indigenous population is ‘assimilated’ by wearing Western clothing. We can’t help but make the connection between the arrival of the colonials and the outbreak of a Western disease. And following ‘Crown’ comes ‘Repatriation’ when we watch another emotionally difficult scene referring to ongoing efforts to repatriate bones and spirits of those who died in London (or perhaps even those whose bones and spirits were taken to London as ‘specimens’). It is tough but compelling watching.

The score for Bennelong was largely composed and performed by Steve Francis, but it also makes many references to the Bennelong story with snippets of music and song from elsewhere—the strains of Rule Britannia at one stage, a rousing sailor song as Bennelong is transported to London by ship, and some Haydn as Bennelong attends a ball with British society. The dancers and others, including dramaturg Alana Valentine and composer Matthew Doyle, have also been recorded speaking and singing and these recordings have been integrated into the score. It is absolutely spellbinding sound.

As is usual in a Bangarra production the visual elements were outstanding. I especially enjoyed Jennifer Irwins’s costumes, which were suggestive of various eras in indigenous and colonial society, from pre-colonial times to the present, without always being exact replicas.

The entire company was in exceptional form, with Elma Kris in a variety of roles as a keeper of indigenous knowledge, and Daniel Riley as Governor Phillip, giving particularly strong performances. But it was Beau Dean Riley Smith as Bennelong who was the powerful presence throughout. In addition to his solo work, it was impossible not to notice and be impressed by him in group sections and in his various encounters with others throughout the piece.

 Elma Kris and Beau Dean Riley Smith in 'Bennelong.' Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2017 © Vishal Pandey

Elma Kris and Beau Dean Riley Smith in Bennelong.Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2017 © Vishal Pandey

But it was in the final section, ‘1813/People of the Land’, that he totally captured the essence of what was at the heart Page’s conception of the character of Bennelong, a man trapped between two worlds and seeming to belong fully to neither. As he struggled physically and verbally to understand his position, and as he found himself slowly being encased in a prison (or mausoleum—Bennelong  died in 1813), Smith was a forlorn and tortured figure. It was thrilling theatre. And that concrete-looking structure that was slowly built around him, and that eventually blocked him out from audience view entirely, was another powerful visual element. As the curtain fell, the prison structure carried a projection of a well-known colonial portrait of Bennelong and it seemed to represent the disappearance of indigenous culture at the hands of the colonial faction.

Bennelong was a truly dramatic and compelling piece of dance theatre. It deserved every moment of the huge ovation it received as it concluded. We all stood.

Michelle Potter, 1 July 2017

Featured image: Beau Dean Riley Smith in Bennelong. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Beau Dean Riley Smith in Bennelong.' Bnagarra Dance Theatre, 2017. Photo: Daniel Boud

Waangenga Blanco in 'Miyagan' from OUR land people stories. Photo: Edward Mulvihill

‘OUR land people stories’. Bangarra Dance Theatre

28 July 2016, Canberra Theatre

Bangarra Dance Theatre has had what artistic director Stephen Page calls a ‘bitter sweet’ year so far. On the one hand the company has had to face the death in April 2016 of David Page, much loved and admired composer, Bangarra’s music director, and brother of Stephen. On the other there have been successes in so many areas. Most recently, Bangarra—the company, its dancers and its productions—has been short-listed in six categories for the 2016 Australian Dance Awards.

Bangarra’s major production for 2016, a triple bill with the title OUR land people stories, has to be counted as a sweet moment. Although it is dedicated to David Page and it is impossible not to be moved hearing his music, which features in the program, OUR land people stories moves forward proudly and is sweet as much as anything because it showcases the work of three emerging choreographers from within the company ranks.

First up on the program was Macq, choreographed by Jasmin Sheppard to a score by David Page. Macq takes as its starting point a confrontation in 1816 between white settlers in the Appin region, south of Campbelltown, New South Wales, and Aboriginal inhabitants of the region, the D’harawal people. As the confrontation over territory escalated and tensions mounted, Colonial forces, under instructions from Governor Macquarie, began what has come to be known as the 1816 Appin massacre. Sheppard researched Macquarie’s diaries and consulted with descendants of the D’harawal and portrays Macquarie as a conflicted man who, on the one hand appeared to have good intentions towards First Nation peoples, but on the other who went to extreme lengths to maintain territorial control of areas under his jurisdiction.

One especially challenging sequence occurs between Macquarie, danced powerfully by Daniel Riley, and Beau Dean Riley Smith, also outstanding in his role as one of the D’harawal men killed in the massacre. As they dispute territorial boundaries, they interact on, under, and around a long table. The movement is fast, dramatic, determined and confronting and makes astonishing use of the table. Another compelling scene shows Riley acting out Macquarie’s conflicted state of mind as he frantically scribbles down his diaries. It is a courageous statement by Sheppard.

Beau Dean Riley Smith and Daniel Riley in a scene from 'Macq'. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2016

Beau Dean Riley Smith and Daniel Riley in a scene from Macq. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2016

But what I found especially powerful about Macq was the way Sheppard had structured the work so as different moments in time were visible even as the main story was unfolding before us. As the work began, for example, in a kind of half light we could see the aftermath of the massacre as D’harawal people mourned the death of their kin. In fact the work moved backwards and forwards in time in a well developed and emotionally satisfying way.

The second work on the program, Miyagan (meaning ‘our family’ in the language of the Wiradjuri Nation) was choreographed by cousins Daniel Riley and Beau Dean Riley Smith. It was structurally complex with sections referring to the matrilineal nature of Wiradjuri system, and to moiety, clan and family, although the the work also referred to life in the early 1900s on the Talbragar Reserve in Dubbo, where Riley and Smith had a common ancestor in Jack Riley. Choreographically the work was vibrant and moved along smoothly to a soundscape by Paul Mac. The intricate web of kinship relationships and responsibilities was highlighted by Jacob Nash’s spectacular hanging sculpture which served as the set for Miyangan.

Myagan

Jacob Nash’s set for Miyagan, Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2016. Photo: Michelle Potter

Page said, in a pre-show forum at the Canberra Theatre, that his aim in curating OUR land people stories was to give an opportunity to Sheppard, Riley and Smith to create main stage works for Bangarra—to nurture emerging choreographers from within the company. He added, however, that he thought perhaps he should also do a work! The result was the closing piece, Nyapanyapa, a work inspired by the art of Yolngu woman, Nyapanyapa Yunupingu. At the heart of the work is the story of Nyapanyapa’s encounter with a water buffalo, which left her badly injured. But we are given insight into many other aspects of her life, and see reproductions of her work as background. Elma Kris is at her charismatic best as Nyapanyapa and the Bangarra dancers show off dancerly skills that range from full-on rock ‘n’ roll to sublimely meditative moves.

Luke Currie-Richardson and Beau Dean Riley Smith in 'Nyapanyapa' from 'OUR land people stories'. Photo: Edward Mulvihill

Luke Currie-Richardson and Beau Dean Riley Smith in ‘Nyapanyapa’ from OUR land people stories. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2016. Photo: © Edward Mulvihill

OUR land people stories once again shows Bangarra as a company where dance meets theatre, meets art, meets music. After its Australian season of this program, Bangarra moves on to New York for the Fall for Dance season and then goes on to Paris to perform in the splendid, ethnographically-oriented venue, Musée du Quai Branly.

Michelle Potter, 5 August 2016

Featured image: Waangenga Blanco in ‘Miyagan’ from OUR land people stories (detail). Photo: © Edward Mulvihill

‘Ochres’. Bangarra Dance Theatre

4  December 2015, Carriageworks, Eveleigh (Sydney)

Seeing Ochres in 2015 after 21 years was a remarkable experience. More than anything it marked the astonishing achievement of Stephen Page and his team of artists. Through the creativity that has characterised Bangarra’s journey, Page has given Australian Indigenous culture a powerful voice. Ochres was an eye opener in 1994. Now it is a powerful evocation of all that Bangarra stands for.

Djakapurra Munyarryun and Bangarra dancers in 'Black' from Ochres, 2015. Photo:-Jhuny-Boy Borja

Djakapurra Munyarryun and Bangarra dancers in ‘Black’ from Ochres, 2015. Photo: © Jhuny-Boy Borja

This 2015 Ochres is not an exact rendition of the original. It is promoted as a ‘reimagining’ of that early show but is definitely close enough for those who saw it in the 1990s to feel they are seeing the work again.

As it did in 1994, the 2015 Ochres begins with a scene featuring cultural consultant Djakapurra Munyarryun, not this time painting up with yellow ochre, but singing a song, Ngurrtja—Land Cleansing Song–composed especially (I believe) for this 2015 production. He has, as ever, huge power and presence. He stood perfectly still for several seconds before beginning his song and the effect was mesmerising.

Torres Starait Islander Elma Kris, another of Bangarra’s consultants, follows with a section called The Light in which she, like Djakapurra Munyarryun had done previously, smeared her limbs and face with yellow ochre.

These opening scenes are followed by the four ‘ochre sections’—’Yellow’  inspired by female energy, ‘Black’ representing male energy, ‘Red’ showing male and female relations, and ‘White’ inspired by history and its influence on the future.

In ‘Yellow’, choreographed by Bernadette Walong-Sene, the women dance low to the ground. Their movements are most often flowing and they have an organic look to them. Deborah Brown shows her remarkable skills throughout this section. How  beautiful to see a relatively classical move, a turn in a low arabesque with one hand on the shoulder for example, followed by sudden movements of the head as if she is curious about, and watchful for what is happening around her. Brown always looks good no matter what style her movements represent.

‘Black’, with contemporary choreography from Stephen Page and traditional choreography from Djakapurra Munyarryun, shows power and masculinity—hunters crouching behind bushes, warriors with their weapons sparring with each other. This section is also characterised by some nicely performed unison work.

‘Red’ has the strongest narrative element of the four sections. It focuses on four different expressions of male/female relationships moving from youthful dalliance featuring Beau Dean Riley Smith, Nicola Sabatino and Yolanda Lowatta to the final section ‘Pain’ in which Elma Kris cares for an ailing man, danced by Daniel Riley. But in between we can imagine other relationships. Domestic violence and addiction perhaps?

‘White’ concludes the program. The two cultural consultants, Elma Kris and Djakapurra Munyarryun, lead this final section and, with all the dancers covered with white ochre, a spiritual quality emerges from sections representing a range of concepts from kinship to totemic ideas. The choreography is credited to Stephen Page, Bernadette Walong-Sene, and Djakapurra Munyarryun.

Jennifer Irwin’s costumes are cleanly cut and simply coloured. Jacob Nash’s set, looking like long shards of bark, hangs in the centre of the space above a sandy mound. It is lit in changing colours by Joseph Mercurio. A score by David Page is evocative of the 1990s but retains enough power and emotion to feel relevant still.

The kind of fusion of contemporary and traditional movements we have come to expect from Bangarra’s dancers is all there and reflects the fact that Bangarra is an urban Aboriginal initiative with strong links back to its cultural heritage. And, while the dancers of 1994 were extraordinary (a list of the 1994 team appears in the program), the manner in which Bangarra has grown technically is also clear. Its dancers are spectacularly good and their commitment shines through.

Michelle Potter, 9 December 2015

Featured image: Leonard Mickelo in a study for Ochres, 2015. Photo: © Edward Mulvihill

Ochres-landscape-wesbite

For more about Djakapurra Munyarryun follow this link.

Dance diary. July 2013

  • Australian Dance Awards 2013: Lifetime Achievement and Hall of Fame
Ronne Arnold and his Contemporary Dance Company of Australia in 'Spirituals', 1971. Photo Roderic Vickers
Ronne Arnold and his Contemporary Dance Company of Australia in ‘Spirituals’, 1971. Photo Roderic Vickers

The 2013 Australian Dance Awards will be presented in Canberra on 5 August. In advance of that date, recipients of the two major awards, Lifetime Achievement and Hall of Fame, have been announced. Ronne Arnold is the recipient of Lifetime Achievement and he is seen above with members of his company, the Contemporary Dance Company of Australia, in a finale to one of their shows.

I was a student with Joan and Monica Halliday when Ronne began to teach there in the 1960s and, while I was far from a jazz dancer, I took Ronne’s classes and also followed him one year to an Arts Council Summer School. He was (and no doubt still is) a wonderful teacher and I continue to treasure memories of those classes. My brief story about him for The Canberra Times is at this link.

An oral history interview with Ronne Arnold, recorded in 1997 and 1998, is  held by the National Library of Australia. Cataloguing details are at this link. (Note of caution: the transcript, although classed as ‘corrected’ in the catalogue, still needs a number of corrections here and there!)

The recipient of the Hall of Fame award is Alan Brissenden whose book Australia Dances. Creating Australian Dance 1945–1965 (co-authored with Keith Glennon), has been invaluable to me in many ways since it was published in 2010 by Wakefield Press. He too will receive his award on 5 August.

  • Heath Ledger Project

In mid-July I was lucky enough to record the first of the interviews with NAISDA graduates for the Heath Ledger Young Artists Oral History Project. Beau Dean Riley Smith graduated from NAISDA in 2012 and is now dancing with Bangarra Dance Theatre. He gave a wonderfully frank interview, punctuated with much laughter, and it was a thrill to see him perform in Blak the next night at the opening of Bangarra’s Canberra season. I was impressed with the way he immersed himself totally in the production and admired his exceptional physicality.

Beau Smith interview. Heath Ledger Project, NFSA 2013. Photo: Brooke Shannon
Beau Smith interview. Heath Ledger Project, 2013. Photo: Brooke Shannon. Courtesy National Film and Sound Archive

The interview was conducted in a studio at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra surrounded by all kinds of sound equipment being used for restoration projects (which does not make an appearance in the recording!), as you can see in the image above. Another NAISDA graduate, independent artist Thomas Kelly, is to be interviewed for the project during August.

And as an update to the project in general it was a thrill to hear that Hannah O’Neill, who was interviewed for the project in May 2012, was placed first in the Paris Opera Ballet examinations this year and has been offered a permanent (that is lifetime) contract with the Paris Opera Ballet. A singular achievement and one that demonstrates not only O’Neill’s exceptional talents but her absolute determination to make it in the company she regards as the best ballet company in the world.

In addition, the other Australian Ballet School graduate interviewed for the project in 2012, Joseph Chapman, tells me that, although his first eighteen months with the company have been ‘challenging’, performing has been a real highlight for him.

  • Cecchetti Society Conference 2013, Melbourne

At the beginning of July I had the pleasure of chairing a session at the 2013 Cecchetti Society Conference in Melbourne. The session concerned the National Theatre Ballet, a company that gave its first performance as a fully-fledged company under the directorship of Joyce Graeme in 1949.

Former dancers of the National Theatre Ballet. Cecchetti Society Conference, Melbourne 2013. Photo: Wendy Cliff
Former dancers of the National Theatre Ballet. Cecchetti Society Conference, Melbourne 2013. Photo: Wendy Cliff

In the photo above I am standing behind the eight participants on the panel, all former dancers from the National Theatre Ballet: (seated left to right, Lorraine Blackbourne, Jennifer Stielow, Dame Margaret Scott, Athol Willoughby, Norma Hancock (Lowden). Phyllis Jeffrey (Miller) Maureen Trickett (Davies) and Ray Trickett. Each of the participants had wonderful stories to tell of their time with the company and the session could have gone on for many hours.

There is still much to be written about the impact of Ballet Rambert in Australia. Here, however, is an article, an overview of the Australian tour, which I wrote for National Library of Australia News in December 2002.

  • Press for July

‘Tragedy without end’. Review of Big hART’s Hipbone sticking out. The Canberra Times, 5 July 2013

‘New direction respects company’s past’. Review of Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Blak. The Canberra Times, 13 July 2013

‘Moving body of work’. Article on Ronne Arnold as the recipient of the 2013 ADA Lifetime Achievement Award. The Canberra Times, 30 July 2013

In July The Canberra Times also published an article I wrote on Paul Knobloch although for reasons of copyright I am not providing a link.

Michelle Potter, 31 July 2013