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

Yolande Brown as Earth Spirit in Spear. Photo Jacob Nash

‘Spear’. A Stephen Page film

17 February 2016, preview screening, Arc Cinema, National Film and Sound Archive, Canberra

No doubt about it, Stephen Page’s Spear is a confronting film, and one in which the director’s approach is absolutely uncompromising. But it is also an incredibly beautiful film from so many points of view.

Spear centres on the spiritual journey of a young man, Djali, played by Hunter Page-Lochard, who seeks to understand what it is to be an Indigenous man suspended between two, often conflicting worlds. As he moves between those two worlds we encounter with him the pressures and problems that surround him, including substance abuse, alcoholism, suicide, and racism.

Hunter Page-Lochard with artists of Bangarra Dance Theatre in 'spear'. Photo Edward Mulvihill

Hunter Page-Lochard with artists of Bangarra Dance Theatre in Spear, 2015. Photo: © Edward Mulvihill

Some moments are (deliberately) quite crass—a dance to the 1960s song ‘My Boomerang Won’t Come Back’, for example. Others are immensely powerful—such as a scene where Daniel Riley as ‘Prison Man’ engages with Elma Kris as ‘Old Woman’ who brings the cleansing power of a smoking ceremony into the prison mess hall. And others are breathtaking in their use of landscape as backdrop—the view of Kaine Sultan Babij as ‘Androgynous Man’ stalking through long grass and between trees is striking, as are the scenes in which Yolande Brown as ‘Earth Spirit’ walks along a red dust road.

Elma Kris and Daniel Riley in 'Spear'. Photo Tiffany Parker

Elma Kris as ‘Old Woman’ and Daniel Riley as ‘Prison Man’ in Spear, 2015. Photo: © Tiffany Parker

Choreographically Page has delivered some of his best movement, whether in solo work for the main members of the cast, or in group scenes. And so powerful are the performances by the cast that there is absolutely no doubt about the message being put forward. Sound is everywhere too. An original score by David Page is complemented by songs from Djakapurra Munyarryun, although spoken text in English is minimal and is mostly delivered by actor Aaron Pedersen who plays the part of ‘Suicide Man’. And there is a suicide scene, which is very deftly handled. Ochre is everywhere as well, in all its four colours. It seems to permeate the production whether as paint on bodies or dust in the air.

What makes this tough, fearless, uncompromising film so quietly beautiful? Visually it is stunning. Director of photography Bonnie Elliott has delivered some amazing shots of an incredible landscape from outback to rugged coastline, and some of the camera angles and close-up shots are just breathtaking. Even her takes on run-down interiors, under-ground spaces and alley ways are moving. And Jacob Nash’s work as production designer gives the film a particular strength. As in his sets for Bangarra’s live shows, Nash has brought to the film an understanding of the power of minimalism in design. But perhaps more than anything it is Stephen Page’s ability to deliver the ultimate message of hope that stands out. The closing scene is a ‘punch the sky’ moment. Simple, direct and moving.

Spear is Stephen Page’s debut as director of a feature-length film. It is a remarkable film. Go see it.

Yolande Brown as Earth Spirit in Spear. Photo Jacob Nash

Yolande Brown as ‘Earth Spirit’ in Spear, 2015. Photo: © Jacob Nash

Detail of the costume for Earth Spirit in 'Spear'.

A close-up view of the ‘Earth Spirit’ costume, the work of Jennifer Irwin.

 Michelle Potter, 19 February 2016

Follow this link for details of and bookings for the Canberra season of Spear at the Arc Cinema, National Film and Sound Archive. It will also be screened at the Arc Cinema as a special fund raiser for Canberra Dance Theatre on 7 March.

Janessa Dufty in Daniel Riley's 'Reign', Sydney Dance Company 2015. Photo: Peter Greig

‘New Breed’ (2015). Sydney Dance Company

8 December 2015, Carriageworks, Eveleigh (Sydney)

My review of New Breed, a program of new works from Kristina Chan, Fiona Jopp, Bernhard Knauer, and Daniel Riley, is now available on DanceTabs. I continue to ponder Riley’s work, Reign, as there is no reason why an Indigenous-style vocabulary shouldn’t be used for any theme. Perhaps, too, I am wrong to assume the theme is strongly Western. But, I still wonder…

Follow this link to the DanceTabs review.

Featured image: Janessa Dufty in Daniel Riley’s Reign. Sydney Dance Company 2015. Photo: © Peter Greig

Janessa Dufty in Daniel Riley's 'Reign', Sydney Dance Company 2015. Photo: Peter Greig

Michelle Potter, 13 December 2015

‘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.

‘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

‘Of earth and sky’. Bangarra Dance Theatre

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, 23 July–28 August

Bangarra Dance Theatre, which was founded by Carole Johnson in 1989, has entered its twenty-first year with a program of two works under the generic title Of earth and sky. Riley, a work by emerging choreographer Daniel Riley McKinley, represents the sky of the title, while Artefact choreographed by well established dancer and choreographer Frances Rings represents the earth. The program as a whole suggests a potential new direction for Bangarra.

The inspiration for Riley came from the work of the late indigenous photographer and film maker Michael Riley, in particular from his series of photographic prints in which an object is digitally manipulated to float against a background of a soft blue sky dotted with clouds. They are single objects, a feather, a locust, a bible, a boomerang, a broken wing, an angel, and they reflect McKinley’s own indigenous background in rural New South Wales and, at times, the conflict between Aboriginal and Christian spirituality.

Riley’s cloud photographs are projected in turn onto a screen and McKinley’s choreography grows from and is shaped by his reflections on the objects. The choreography for the boomerang image, for example, swirls and turns, while that for the locust gathers strength of movement so that it buzzes and swarms as David Page’s electronic music develops an insistent power. The highlight is a duet, Angel, danced by Waangenga Blanco and Leonard Mickelo. They carry each other shoulder high, proudly and powerfully, as a stone angel hovers as the background image.

Riley is an impressive, if occasionally unsophisticated, choreographic beginning for McKinley. With its abstraction from any form of narrative it is quite different from much of the material we have seen from Bangarra over the previous two decades.

Artefact is the latest in a string of works made for Bangarra by Rings, who has recently been appointed resident choreographer for the company. It looks at objects of the earth such as string bags, grinding stones, bodies, weaving and coolamun (an aboriginal carrying vessel) for its inspiration. The opening sequence, called Museum, sets the scene for what follows. In it Daniel Riley McKinley and Travis de Vries, the latter a dancer on secondment to Bangarra, alternately wrap, hide and present themselves in an enormous possum skin cloak, a museum artefact that resonates nevertheless with the spirituality with which it was originally imbued. Rings appears also to be moving more towards abstraction and her choreography unfolds smoothly and organically, even lyrically at times, with some arresting movement for groups of dancers.

Bangarra has always been known for the strength of its visual aesthetic and Of earth and sky is no exception. In particular its lighting by the team of Damien Cooper and Matt Cox is subtle and evocative. But perhaps what emerges most strongly from this production is the potential movement towards abstraction, or away from strongly narrative works, by its choreographers. It could be an interesting new decade.

Michelle Potter, 5 August 2010