Below is a slightly expanded version of my review of Dark Emu. The online Canberra Times review was posted earlier at this link.
26 July 2018, Canberra Theatre
Dark Emu, Bangarra Dance Theatre’s newest production, is inspired by a book of the same name by Bruce Pascoe. In the book Pascoe examines aspects of Aboriginal life prior to the arrival of British settlers. In particular he shows quite convincingly that Aboriginal people were not simply hunters and gathers living in a kind of rudimentary lean-to structure. On the contrary, they cultivated the land, build sturdy and lasting housing for themselves, built dams and used irrigation techniques for their crops, stored food, governed themselves and so on. The history that in general has been passed down to white people simply doesn’t tell us such things. But reading the book in the week before the show, I wondered how Pascoe’s story would translate into dance.
I don’t think it translated very well to tell the truth and I wish I hadn’t read the book in advance. There was a strong historical argument in Pascoe’s book, but in setting out that argument he used very specific examples. In one section of the book, for example, Pascoe talks about the Indigenous use of fire for back burning. A section of the dance clearly was about fire—if nothing else the lighting told us so. But the choreography didn’t really give us the significance of the use of fire, nor that its use was seen very differently by white settlers. The later sections, however, were more obvious when there was some conflict between groups and when Indigenous culture stood tall and proud at the end. I guess the show was meant to portray the spirit of the book and convey an emotional message. But it was somewhat frustrating trying to understand where the work was going.
But putting that aspect of the show aside, there was some excellent dancing and every dancer deserves praise for the poise and commitment they demonstrated throughout the work. I enjoyed the rhythmic movement patterning of sections such as Kangaroo Grass. I also especially liked a trio, Grain Dust, performed by Kaine Sultan-Babij, Beau Dean Riley Smith and Yolande Lowatta. It had some beautifully organic moves and Smith in particular stood out for the way in which he used every part of his body so expressively. In fact, whenever he was on stage, even when wearing that red wig, it was hard to look at anyone else.
I also admired Jacob Nash’s backcloth. Structurally, it reminded me of a kind of Blue Poles set in the bush. In many respects, with its complex lines and swirls and gentle colours, it carried the strongest message of the inventiveness of Aboriginal activity prior to British settlement. But I was surprised when I saw Jennifer Irwin’s costumes close up in media images. From where I was sitting, or perhaps with the kind of lighting being used, I didn’t notice the extent of the detail that she used (as she usually does) in her choice of fabric. I was not a huge fan of the music (by Steve Francis). Most previous Bangarra productions have always seemed to have had a stronger Indigenous resonance in their scores.
Last year’s Bennelong was always going to be a hard act to follow. It managed narrative and emotion and gave us both in spades. Dark Emu was emotive but seemed not to have a strong enough structure to make it as powerful as I had hoped, even with input, apparently, from dramaturg Alana Valentine.
Michelle Potter, 27 July 2018
Featured image: Dancers of Bangarra Dance Theatre in Dark Emu, 2018. Photo: © Daniel Boud