Djakapurra Munyarryun Ochres 2015 Photo by Jhuny-Boy Borja

Djakapurra Munyarryun. Bangarra Dance Theatre

In late September and early October Bangarra Dance Theatre will be performing in New York and Paris. In New York the company will be part of Fall for Dance, a wonderful initiative that has been held in October, when the leaves of the city’s deciduous trees are falling to the ground, for about 10 years now. All seats are just $15 and the program features dancers and dance companies from America and around the world. Bangarra will present Spirit, a selection from some of the company’s best-known works. That selection will include Djakapurra Munyarryun’s Ngurrtja—land cleansing song, which opened the 2015 reworking of the 1995 production, Ochres.

In Paris Bangarra will give five performances of the new Ochres at the Musée du quai Branly—Jacques Chirac, a museum devoted to ethnographic material from around the world. The company has a one week residency at the museum and the residency will include, in addition to Ochres, workshops, public talks and screenings of Stephen Page’s film Spear.

The role that Djakapurra Munyarryun will play in Ochres on this tour is not quite the same as his role in the original production, when in the opening moments he was seen smearing his body with yellow ochre. It was an unforgettable theatrical moment.

Djakapurra Munyarryun in Ochres, Bangarra Dance Theatre 1995. Photo Tim Webster

Djakapurra Munyarryun in Ochres, Bangarra Dance Theatre 1995. Photo: © Tim Webster
National Library of Australia

The recollection of that opening sent me hunting for a Canberra Times article I wrote in 1998 as a preview to Bangarra’s season of Fish. As the story was published in print form only, that is some years before The Canberra Times was available online, I am republishing it here (in a slightly refined form) for the background it gives to the work of Djakapurra Munyarryun.

‘Cultural designer steeped in tradition.’
Michelle Potter

When Bangarra Dance Theatre’s production of Fish opens next week at the brand new Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre, one performer is sure to stand out: Djakapurra Munyarryun. He has that elusive quality—stage presence. So strong is the sense of wisdom and authority that pervades his activities onstage it’s hard to believe he’s only 23. Artistic director of Bangarra and choreographer of Fish, Stephen Page, says, “It’s not surprising really. He’s part of the Dreaming.”

Munyarryun, steeped in the traditional dances and ceremonies of the Yirrkala community in north-eastern Arnhem Land, is Bangarra’s cultural consultant. For Fish he has also been designated “cultural designer” and takes his place alongside the other members of the creative team. Munyarryun’s contribution to the work of Bangarra is critical. It helps it achieve what is most distinctive about it: the fusion of traditional stories and music with the experiences of urban Aboriginal and Islander people.

“When he works with the company there is a constant sharing of ideas,” Page says. He is inspirational. Djakapurra helps build layers of Aboriginality in the company.”

Such layers are apparent in the thematic material in Fish. The works takes us on a journey to three watery worlds and celebrates the wealth of life and mystery they contain. Swamps is redolent of the sacredness and spirituality of traditional lifestyles; Traps juxtaposes contemporary Western and old Aboriginal ways; Reef, full of colour and light, is celebratory and refers especially to the dance styles of Torres Strait Islander communities.

For two, at least, of the Page brothers—choreographer/director Stephen, and musician David, who composed the score for Fish—the relationship with Munyarryun continues beyond the dance studio. The three enjoy a special relationship that allows them to explore the links between traditional and urban ways in a diversity of situations. Not only have they been adopted into each other’s families, but they also spend time in Yirrkala together often going out to catch stingrays. Stephen Page says:

“Of course the urban situation, where many of our stories were forbidden, was frustrating for Djakapurra at first. He had to learn a hard lesson about urban Aboriginal history. But he was always interested in the crossover of traditional and contemporary styles in both music and dance, and just kept returning to storytelling to rekindle the spirit. Now he is comfortable in both traditional and urban situations. This is the kind of fusion that is built into the infrastructure of Bangarra.”

Munyarryun has been with Bangarra since 1991, featuring in all its major productions including Praying Mantis Dreaming, Ninni, Ochres and, most recently Rites, the popular collaboration between Bangarra and the Australian Ballet staged for the Melbourne Festival last year.

As well as being a dynamic dancer, Munyarryun is a virtuoso didgeridoo player and in Fish, as well as dancing, he features as a musician on the soundtrack playing bilma and yirrdaki (clap sticks and didgeridoo). His versatility as a performer has also brought him roles in films, including Black River and Breaking Through, as well as work with the band Yothu Yindi.

Fish, now touring Australia as part of the 1998 Made to Move season, premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival last year before returning for a Sydney season in the Festival of the Dreaming, the first of the cultural festivals leading to the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.

As well as highlighting the Bangarra approach to fusion, Fish has an extraordinary visual impact. Its evocative set is by Peter England; costumes are by Jennifer Irwin, who explores the qualities of texture and sheen; and lighting is by Mark Howett.

Djakapurra Munyarryun is the tall dancer, with presence and authority, who will probably come out after the show in jeans, a T-shirt and a baseball cap.

First published in The Canberra Times—Panorama, 18 April 1998, p. 16.

Michelle Potter, 26 August 2016

Featured image: Djakapurra Munyarryun in a scene from Ochres, 2015. Photo: ©  Jhuny-Boy Borja

Djakapurra Munyarryun Ochres 2015 Photo by Jhuny-Boy Borja

 

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.

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.

Morning Star. Mirramu Dance Company

1 March 2013, James O Fairfax Theatre, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Morning Star is the result of two years of research and choreographic development between Elizabeth Dalman and her Mirramu Dance Company based in Bungendore, New South Wales, and communities in Arnhem Land. The work is based on a sacred songline of the Yolngu people that deals with birth, life, death and rebirth. The cast of Morning Star consisted of indigenous and non-indigenous artists and the production was assisted by several cultural consultants, including the custodian of the traditional Morning Star story, Banula Marika, and didgeridoo player, Nalkuma Burarrwanga.

What made the show especially memorable, and indeed to my mind quite remarkable, was the way in which dances associated with the traditional songline were juxtaposed with contemporary versions of the same aspect of the story. So we saw, amongst other similar components of the production, a traditional spirit dance celebrating the rising of the morning star followed immediately by a contemporary spirit dance enhanced by powerful Western-style theatrical lighting and choreographed using contemporary dance vocabulary.

A particular highlight for me was a contemporary brolga dance, which in the spirit of the show followed ‘Mulung, Mulung’, a traditional brolga dance. Performed by Jade Dewi Tyas Tunggal, a particularly powerful and captivating dancer, the undulating movement of the contemporary choreography expertly captured the notion of a dancing bird. The costume, designed and made by Peta Strachan, was exceptional: a long white, feathery gown with an extended ‘tail’, it was enhanced by a red flower placed on the breast area, which recalled the red plumage the brolga displays around its head.

But I also especially liked watching Albert David who danced strongly throughout and who had a duet with Miranda Wheen towards the end of the show that displayed both his and her technical strengths and strong stage presence. It was a delight too to see Janet and Djakapurra Munyarryun back onstage, in fact often commanding the stage.

I always feel slightly alarmed, however, at the prospect of non-indigenous dancers performing traditional indigenous movement and most of the traditionally-focused sections included non-indigenous dancers working alongside indigenous artists. But to their credit the non-indigenous dancers in Morning Star only occasionally looked out of place. I did find the section called ‘Kinship’ a little jarring though. In it each dancer came forward to explain his or her indigenous heritage or links, including those dancers without an indigenous background who had been adopted into a clan by an indigenous ‘brother’ or ‘mother’ and so on. I’m not sure it was necessary and program notes convey such matters much better I think. The commitment to the project shone through in movement and breaking that feeling with wordy explanations achieved little.

Morning Star was performed in the difficult space of the James O Fairfax Theatre. Its stage has little depth and little wing space and often requires dancers who perform there to radically transform their floor patterns to accommodate the space. But this show fitted beautifully and there were moments when the ambience, helped by a score from Airi Ingram that included the occasional crying child, transported the audience to an imaginary outdoor gathering place.

Morning Star is a beautifully honest show made with love and commitment.

Michelle Potter, 4 March 2013

Featured image: (l–r) Djakapurra Munyarryun, Albert David, Miranda Wheen and Jade Dewi Tyas Tunggal in ‘Contemporary Spirit Dance’ from Morning Star. Photo: © 2013 Barbie Robinson