Glory Tuohy-Daniell, Rika Hamaguchi and Lillian Banks in SandSong. Bangarra_Dance Theatre 2021. Photo © Daniel Boud

SandSong. Bangarra Dance Theatre

11 June 2021, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

SandSong. Stories from the Great Sandy Desert begins with some black and white footage that is instantly confrontational. Moving sharply from one event to another, and accompanied by an exceptionally loud sound score, it shows some of the atrocities endured by the Indigenous inhabitants of the Kimberley region over an extended period of time. In fact, the work as a whole focuses on the Kimberley area of Western Australia. Program notes tell us that SandSong is ‘a journey into ancient story systems framed against the backdrop of ever-changing government policy and of the survival of people determined to hold strong to their Culture.’

The opening footage sets the scene for what unfolds over the course of the performance and a timeline in the printed program expands on what the footage illustrates.

But SandSong had quite a different feel from most of the recent Bangarra productions I have seen. There were strong anthropological references in the early sections. In Act I, the Cold Dry Season, gender divisions in traditional society were made clear in a range of ways. We saw women’s business and activities in the form of specific dances, such as a bush onion dance showing the gathering and preparation of this food. We also watched preparations for a totem ceremony in which the men only were involved. As such the choreography was gender specific with the women performing quite simplistic movements at times, as opposed to the men for whom the choreography had more variety, more energy. Often the choreography for the men seemed to border on anger or to look inflammatory, while that for the women seem reserved and calm.

This gender division continued in Act 2, the Hot Dry Season, but changed somewhat as the story continued through the four sections. Particularly dramatic was Act 3 when the community entered a phase of working outside their traditional culture. The opening section, ‘Auction’ was especially powerful. Were the Kimberley people really being auctioned off for jobs on cattle stations and the like? A feeling of devastation crossed the footlights. Act 4 saw a kind of resolution, however, as healing and resilience began to emerge and by the end, as Rika Hamaguchi made her way around the stage, the anger and humiliation subsided as the dancers expressed their ties to kin and community.

Rika Hamaguchi in the final scene from SandSong. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2021. Photo © Daniel Boud

Of the dancers, Beau Dean Riley Smith stood out throughout the show, as he has done for the past several years. While he did not play a specific character as he did, for example, in Macq and Bennelong, his ‘maleness’ in the early sections was brilliant. It was clear in every movement and every part of his body, including neck and head as well as limbs. I also admired the work of Baden Hitchcock with his fluid and very expressive movement, and of Rika Hamaguchi who had a beautiful serenity at times. But Bangarra is full of new faces. We have much to anticipate I think.

Baden Hitchcock in SandSong. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2021. Photo © Daniel Boud

Once again Jennifer Irwin’s costumes were simply outstanding, especially in the feathery detail that seemed an essential part of many items, but also in the contemporary feel that her costumes developed towards the end.

Bangarra Dance Theatre in SandSong. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2021. Photo © Daniel Boud

Jacob Nash’s backcloth was quite simple and shimmered under the lighting of Nick Schlieper. Steve Francis concocted the score from a range of sources including voice and words along with recordings from previous Bangarra shows.

I came away from SandSong with mixed reactions. It is perhaps a show that needs more than a single viewing for the complexities, not so much of the story, but of the choreographic expression of those stories to become clearer.

Michelle Potter, 14 June 2021

Featured image: Glory Tuohy-Daniell, Rika Hamaguchi and Lillian Banks in SandSong. Bangarra Dance Theatre 2021. Photo © Daniel Boud

Glory Tuohy-Daniell, Rika Hamaguchi and Lillian Banks in SandSong. Bangarra_Dance Theatre 2021. Photo © Daniel Boud

Firestarter. The story of Bangarra

Firestarter, documenting the origins and rise of Bangarra Dance Theatre, is filled with emotion—from joy to sadness and everything in between. But leaving the emotions to one side for the moment, I was utterly transfixed by two political moments that were part of the unfolding story. The first was footage of former Prime Minister Paul Keating giving his famous ‘Redfern Speech’ in 1992. In that speech Keating gave his assessment of Aboriginal history as it unfolded following the arrival in Australia of the British in the 18th century. ‘We committed the murders,’ he said. ‘We took the lands.’ ‘We brought the diseases.’ ‘We took the children.’ The second was by another former Prime Minister, John Howard, explaining in 1998 why, in his opinion, there was no need to issue an apology to the Indigenous population of Australia for wrongs committed to those people. Such disparate points of view. How sad is that and how can that be?

As mind-blowing as it was seeing those two political moments unfold, however, Firestarter was certainly more than politics. It traced the story of three brothers, Stephen, David and Russell Page from their childhood in Brisbane to their training at what became the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association, NAISDA; their roles in the establishment and ongoing development of Bangarra; and the frightening end to the lives of David and Russell. Along the way we met others involved in the complex story—Carole Johnson, founder of NAISDA and Bangarra; Frances Rings, currently associate artistic director of Bangarra; cultural consultants Djakapurra Munyarryun and Elma Kris; several current and past dancers of Bangarra; Wesley Enoch, artistic director across a range of theatrical organisations; Hetti Perkins, daughter of Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins; Hunter Page Lochard, son of Stephen Page; Rhimi Page, son of Russell Page; and others. All had unique stories and points of view.

There was of course some great dancing from Bangarra performances over the 30+ years of its existence, and there was some gorgeous footage of a young David (as Little Davey Page) singing on early television shows such as Countdown and the Paul Hogan Show, along with scenes from his theatre shows. Then there was compelling footage from the Indigenous component of the opening ceremony for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. But perhaps most moving of all were scenes from Bennelong, Bangarra’s ground breaking work from 2017, which was described in the film as Stephen Page’s most successful work to date, and which he made as he worked at recovering from the death of his brother David in 2016.

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

Also associated with the death of David Page was footage from the presentation to Stephen of the prestigious J. C. Williamson Award at the Helpmann Awards event in 2016. The acceptance speech Stephen made (supported by his son Hunter standing beside him) so soon after the death of David was gut wrenching to watch and hear.

But on a more joyous note, perhaps my favourite part of the whole film was watching Stephen, the proud grandfather, holding his baby granddaughter, daughter of Hunter and his wife. Life continues. Life triumphs. Bangarra, such an exceptional company, moves forward.

This beautiful and challenging film was directed by Wayne Blair and Nel Minchin and produced by Ivan O’Mahoney.

Michelle Potter, 2 March 2021

30 years of sixty five thousand. Bangarra Dance Theatre

13 June 2019. Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Bangarra Dance Theatre is 30 years old this year and its latest program, 30 years of sixty five thousand, celebrates that anniversary. It also acknowledges the extent of the heritage on which the company is built, and to which it looks for inspiration.

First up on the program was a revival of Unaipon, Frances Rings’ 2004 portrait of Aboriginal inventor, philosopher, writer and storyteller David Unaipon, whose portrait now appears on the Australian $50 note. Unaipon opens with a sequence in which a figure, representing Unaipon himself, dances behind a scrim in a mystical evocation of man’s existence. It then focuses on aspects of Unaipon’s early background as a Ngarrindjeri man, and subsequently follows some of his thoughts and ideas in areas of science and religion.

Every scene in Unaipon had its unique choreographic qualities. On the one hand, for example, there was Bangarra’s distinctive take on traditional movement in Sister baskets, a section about the intricate style of weaving that is distinctive to Ngarrindjeri culture. On the other, and in contrast, one of Unaipon’s particular scientific interests was the concept of motion and this concept was explored with choreography in which walking across the stage dominated. I don’t usually enjoy those moments that find their way into a lot of choreography where walking and running around the stage go on forever, or so it seems. But in the case of Unaipon, the movement was diverse as dancers dodged each other, passed each other, and gently bumped each other, all the time reflecting Unaipon’s interest in bodies in space.

The absolute stand-out performer in Unaipon was Tyrel Dulvarie, who danced the role of David Unaipon. In the opening sequence, gliding across the stage (on some hidden device?) and using exquisitely lyrical arm movements, he transported us into a world of dreams and ideas. Then in the section called Four Winds, which dealt with man’s need for knowledge about the seasons, he danced as Tolkami (the West Wind) wearing an astonishing grass costume by Jennifer Irwin. Dulvarie’s presence was commanding and his dancing transfixing in this solo. In the final section, which focused on Unaipon’s interest in religion, Dulvarie showed his ability to isolate individual movements (even toes played a role) and, again, his powerful stage presence was clear and imposing

Scene from 'Unaipon'. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud
Tyrel Dulvarie as Tolkami (the West Wind) in Unaipon. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The middle work on the program was Jiří Kylián’s Stamping Ground created in 1983 after a momentous visit made by Kylián to Groote Eylandt in 1980. In the Bangarra program, Stamping Ground was preceded by a brief video clip in which Kylián explained the origins of the work; his emotional response to his experiences on Groote Eylandt; and that the work was created not with the aim of copying Indigenous movement but as an homage to Indigenous culture. The dance itself was performed by six dancers, three male, three female. It was a revelation as it had all the characteristics of Kylián’s later choreography, including the manner in which he uses a backcloth as part of a work; the little snatches of humour; the beautiful, bird-like use of extended arms; the incredible lifts; and so on. Staged for Bangarra by Roslyn Anderson, Stamping Ground was stunningly danced by Tara Gower, Baden Hitchcock, Rika Hamaguchi, Ella Havelka, Tyrel Dulvarie, and Ryan Pearson. Their performance indicated the growing technical strengths of Bangarra dancers, who can now hold their own across a range of choreographic styles.

Rika Hamaguchi and Ryan Pearson in Stamping Ground. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Bangarra means ‘to make fire’ in the Wiradjuri language and, for the closing section of Bangarra’s anniversary program, artistic director Stephen Page brought together a selection of moments from previous Bangarra productions and curated them under the name To make fire. The selections showed different aspects of Bangarra’s output, including biographical productions with selections from Mathinna; stories from the Torres Strait Islands with selections from About; and, in the final section given the over-arching name Clan, excerpts from Belong and Walkabout. This final section suggests a vision for a future in which identity can be reclaimed and reconciled with contemporary society.

A trio from Mathinna was a highlight for me. It suggested, through its varied movement and differing connections between the dancers, the potential nature of relationships between Mathinna, a young Tasmanian woman of Lowreenne heritage, and the colonial couple who adopted but then rejected her. Another highlight came in Clan when a short section called Wiradjuri was danced strongly by Beau Dean Riley Smith (a Wiradjuri man as it happens). Its music by David Page was mesmerising with a whispering voice-over murmuring the single word ‘Wiradjuri’ over and over.

Trio from 'Mathinna'.Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2019.. Photo: Daniel Boud
Lillian Banks as Mathinna, Rikki Mason as John Franklin and Tara Gower as Jane Franklin from Mathinna. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

In program notes for 30 years of sixty five thousand, Stephen Page suggests that Bangarra’s greatest achievement is that it has survived for those 30 years. But Bangarra has done more than survive. It has flourished. It can now claim an extensive repertoire of music and dance, which it can and does draw upon; it has a spirited associate artistic director in Frances Rings, who supports the dynamic director Stephen Page; and its dancers are polished performers whose movement vocabulary has gone from strength to strength over those 30 years. And if you are lucky enough to be at an opening night in Sydney, the company’s home base, it becomes very clear that the company has an appreciative audience unafraid to express its pride in and appreciation for Bangarra.

Michelle Potter, 15 June 2019

Featured image: Scene from To make fire. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2019. Photo: © Lisa Tomasetti

'Sheoak', Luke Currie Richardson, Yolanda Lowatta and Beau Dean Riley Smith, Photo © Jacob Nash

Lore. Bangarra Dance Theatre

9 July 2015, Canberra Theatre

It would be hard to find two such disparate works as the two that make up lore, Bangarra Dance Theatre’s latest program curated by the company’s artistic director, Stephen Page. I.B.I.S, the opener, is the debut choreographic work from two artists from the Torres Strait Islands, Deborah Brown and Waangenga Blanco, and it is filled with fun, laughter and joyous dancing. Sheoak is from established choreographer, Frances Rings, and has a more sombre tone. While this work ends on a note of hope, it deals with serious issues that have powerful political overtones. But both are thrilling to watch and give us, once more, an insight into the depth of talent in the Bangarra family, which includes not just the dancers and choreographers, but the whole creative team.

I.B.I.S begins in a supermarket belonging to the Island Board of Industry and Services (hence the name I.B.I.S) and its customers are there not just to shop, but to socialise as well. We know though that they also shop there. A cheery dance by the women, who manipulate metal shopping baskets, makes that quite clear.

'I.B.I.S', Deborah Brown & Waangenga Blanco, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Tan
I.B.I.S with Deborah Brown & Waangenga Blanco, Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Tan

As the work progresses, however, we meet the fishermen who catch the sea creatures that fill the freezer cabinets. And we even meet the sea creatures themselves when they escape from the freezer at night.

But the essence of I.B.I.S is the community spirit that permeates Island life. There is a wonderful picnic-style section where the men dance for the women and then the women dance for the men, amid much shouting and many exclamations. And the highlight is the final section, which comes almost unexpectedly after it seems that the show is over. The full ensemble returns wearing traditional island skirts and headdresses and performs an absolutely exhilarating traditional dance, which clearly shows the many influences from Melanesia and Polynesia that characterise the culture of the Torres Strait Islands.

Sheoak focuses on environmental issues. The sheoak tree, the grandmother tree in indigenous lore, is endangered and, in the opening scene, we see pyramid of dancers gradually collapsing. The metaphor of the tree as Aboriginal society continues, and the keeper of the place in which the tree grows mourns its loss. Societal dysfunction results and the community faces the challenges of operating in a new environment. Choreographically, Rings has given the dancers stumbling movements that make them look disoriented. And a stunning duet between Elma Kris and Yolanda Yowatta is a highlight as an encounter between the old order and the new. Yowatta is currently a trainee with Bangarra and her beautifully fluid style of moving is an absolute delight.

Elma Kris made a major contribution to both works. In I.B.I.S she played the role of the  owner of the store and her opening dance with a mop was a delight. But it was in Sheoak as the keeper of the lore that her strength as a performer, her commanding presence, was so clear. Hope for the future shone through.

Elma Kris in 'Sheoak'. Banggara Dance Theatre, 2015. Photo: © Edward Mulvihill
Elma Kris in Sheoak. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2015. Photo: © Edward Mulvihill

As ever with Bangarra productions, lore was enhanced by a strong visual design. Karen Norris’ lighting for Sheoak was especially outstanding. It created a somewhat eerie atmosphere that set the work in an indefinable time. Jacob Nash continues to create minimal but very effective sets and Jennifer Irwin’s costumes again show her exceptional layering of textiles, notably in Sheoak. The evocative original scores were by David Page for Sheoak and Steve Francis for I.B.I.S.

If I have a grumble, it is that I would have liked to have seen better unison dancing (when unison was an intended part of the choreography). But it is hard to grumble when we are presented with the magnificent theatricality that characterised lore.

Michelle Potter, 15 July 2015

Featured image: Sheoak with Luke Currie Richardson, Yolanda Lowatta and Beau Dean Riley Smith. Photo: © Jacob Nash

'Sheoak', Luke Currie Richardson, Yolanda Lowatta and Beau Dean Riley Smith, Photo © Jacob Nash

Season’s greetings & the ‘best of’ 2012

Thank you to those who have logged on to my website over the past year, especially those who  have kept the site alive with their comments. I wish you the compliments of the season and look forward to hearing from you in 2013.

The best of 2012

Lists of the ‘best of’ will always be very personal and will depend on what any individual has been able to see. However, here are my thoughts in a number of categories with links back to my posts on the productions. I welcome, of course, comments and lists from others, which are sure to be different from mine.

Most outstanding new choreography: Graeme Murphy’s The narrative of nothing (despite its title), full of vintage Murphy moves but full of the new as well.

Most outstanding production: Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Terrain with choreography by Frances Rings and outstanding collaborative input from the creative team of Jennifer Irwin, Jacob Nash, Karen Norris and David Page.

Most outstanding performance by a dancer, or dancers: Lana Jones and Kevin Jackson in Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky pas de deux as part of the Australian Ballet’s 50th anniversary gala.

Most disappointing production: The Australian Ballet’s revival of Robert Helpmann’s Display. I’m not sure that anyone in the production/performance really ‘got it’ and it became simply a reminder that dance doesn’t always translate well from generation to generation, era to era.

Surprise of the year: Finucane and Smith’s Glory Box. While some may question whether this show was dance or not, Moira Finucane’s performance in Miss Finucane’s Collaboration with the National Gallery of Victoria (Get Wet for Art) was a wonderful, tongue-in-cheek comment on the angst-ridden works of Pina Bausch, and as such on Meryl Tankard’s more larrikin approach to serious issues.

Dancer to watch: Tammi Gissell. I was sorry to miss the Perth-based Ochre Contemporary Dance Company’s inaugural production, Diaphanous, in which Gissell featured, but I was impressed by her work with Liz Lea in Canberra as part of Science Week 2012 at CSIRO and look forward to the development of that show later in Canberra in 2013.

Beyond Australia: Wayne McGregor’s FAR, in which the choreography generated so much to think about, to talk over and to ponder upon.

Most frustrating dance occurrence: The demise of Australia Dancing and the futile efforts to explain that moving it to Trove was a positive step.

Michelle Potter, 16 December 2012

Tara Gower in 'Terrain'. Photo Greg Barrett

Terrain. Bangarra Dance Theatre

13 September 2012, Canberra Theatre

This is an expanded version of my review of Terrain published in The Canberra Times, 15 September 2012, under the title ‘Dancing into luscious terrain’.

Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Terrain is a mesmerising work in nine short parts. Billed as a hymn to country, it evokes the changing landscape of Lake Eyre while at the same time reflecting on the relationship of indigenous Australians to their land. Its power emerges at every level—choreographically, visually and musically and through some exceptionally fine performances by the dancers as well.

Yolande Brown and Travis de Vries in Terrain, Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2012. Photo: © Greg Barrett

Terrain is the work of choreographer Frances Rings and her dance making has many touches that mark her choreography as unusual and distinctive. She groups people together tightly at times and then suddenly a single body is thrust upwards and extends out of the complexity of it all. She often works on bodies that are positioned upside down so the legs and feet are the main focus. Sometimes the choreography jerks and bobs as in the section called ‘Spinifex’; at other times it flows smoothly and this is the quality we see in the final section ‘Deluge’. Occasionally a political stance draws out movement of a more forceful kind as in ‘Shields’ in which issues of land rights and recognition of indigenous people determine the choreographic style. The work has the stamp of Bangarra in the grounded quality of its movement: bodies rarely attempt to defy gravity. But it has the stamp of Rings in its delicacy and intricacy of movement.

The standout section for me was ‘Reflect’ in which Rings brought to life the meeting of earth and sky at the horizon. With its muted colour scheme of earthy green and brown, and consisting simply of a solo for Deborah Brown followed by a duet between Brown and Leonard Mickelo, it had a simplicity and purity to it. It called up a mysterious place where two worlds converge. ‘Spinifex’ was also bewitching as an ensemble of female dancers pranced and twisted across the stage in choreography that was inspired by the trees around Lake Eyre. My eye was also often drawn to Waangenga Blanco in several sections. He dances with such a fluid upper body and his movement streams out to his fingertips. His dancing was especially strong in the finale, ‘Deluge’, when water and hence life began to flow into Lake Eyre.

The work of Bangarra has always been distinguished by a strong visual aesthetic. For Terrain set designer Jacob Nash began with a bright, white stage that was gradually filled with changing colours and light. His major contribution was a series of abstract back cloths and each was a distinctive work of art in its own right. They ranged from a strong red and black cloth with a central focus of a circular black and white motif for ‘Scar’, to the soft green and brown impressionistic cloth against which ‘Reflect’ was danced. All the cloths were enhanced by the lighting design of Karen Norris, and indeed her lighting was a major design element in the first three sections.

Jennifer Irwin’s costumes were quite stunning. Diverse in their cut and in their sculptural qualities, they were beautifully textured and designed so that light playing on them could change their appearance completely. The women’s skirts for ‘Spinifex’, for example, often looked like lace as bodies swirled into a patch of light. A feathered, tight fitting, short bolero style jacket was alluring in ‘Salt’ and the flowing, lightly patterned skirts for men and women in ‘Deluge’ captured beautifully the feel of water.

Terrain was danced to an original score by David Page. It was lush and romantic at times, sparse and even harsh at other times. It flowed along with the choreography and vice versa.

Terrain is a wonderfully integrated work in which people, politics and country are delicately balanced. The spirit of a constantly changing Lake Eyre courses through the entire piece and the work secures Bangarra’s position as a treasure on the Australian dance landscape.

Michelle Potter, 15 September 2012

Featured image: Tara Gower in ‘Scar’ from Terrain, Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2012. Photo: © Greg Barrett

Tara Gower in 'Terrain'. Photo Greg Barrett

Of earth and sky. Bangarra Dance Theatre

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

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