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

Bangarra Dance Theatre in a scene from Corroboree of 2001. Dubboo 2018. Photo Daniel Boud

Dubboo. Life of a songman. Bangarra Dance Theatre and guests

7 December 2018. Carriageworks, Sydney

Dubboo. Life of a songman was a tribute to David Page, master musician and esteemed elder of the extended Page family, who died in 2016. Dubboo was his nickname (or one of them) and the theatrical tribute showed us much about the diversity of his life and the process by which his music came into being. It was an emotional evening of music, dance, reminiscences. projected imagery and film clips. Having said that, sadly I have to admit that unexpected circumstances meant that I was only able to stay for Act I, Dubboo: Songman. I missed Act 2: Dubboo: Showman. Looking at the Act 2 media images, clearly I missed the tribute to the extravagant side of David Page’s life—his life as an actor, as a female impersonator and a ‘drag persona’ as Alana Valentine puts it in her program tribute.

Bangarra Dance Theatre in part 2 of Dubboo

Bangarra Dance Theatre in Act 2 of Dubboo. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Nevertheless, there was so much to admire in Act 1. It was wonderful to see dance excerpts from some of the many works for which Page created the music. It was wonderful, too, to hear his music adapted for string quartet, and to hear spoken and sung excerpts, tributes and stories from people like Archie Roach, Djakapurra Munyarryun, Ursula Yovich and Hunter Page-Lochard, not to mention seeing film clips of Page himself explaining some of the processes he engaged in while composing.

Djakapurra Munyarryun and Ursula Yovich. Duboo, 2018. Photo Daniel Boud

(l-r) Archie Roach (seated), Djakapurra Munyarryun and Ursula Yovich, with string quartet in the background. Dubboo, 2018. Photo: © Daniel Boud

From a dance perspective, I was moved especially by ‘Lust’ from Brolga of 2001. Its sexy choreography was stunningly danced by Waangenga Blanco and Tara Robertson, who wrapped themselves around each other with an intensity that made two bodies appear as one. A second standout was ‘Brother’ from Skin/Spear of 2000 acted and danced by the remarkable Beau Dean Riley Smith. And then there was the lightness and lyricism of Tara Gower in ‘Feather’ from Bush of 2003. But every danced excerpt was performed with power, grace and dedication.

Tara Gower in 'Feather' from 'Bush' 2003. Dubboo 2018. Photo Jhuny-Boy Borja

Tara Gower in ‘Feather’ from Bush 2003. Dubboo 2018. Photo: © Jhuny-Boy Borja

Bangarra Dance Theatre and its guests in this tribute did David Page proud and I was honoured to be there, even if only for part of it all.

Michelle Potter, 11 December 2018

Featured image: Bangarra Dance Theatre in a scene from Corroboree of 2001. Dubboo 2018. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Bangarra Dance Theatre in a scene from Corroboree of 2001. Dubboo 2018. Photo Daniel Boud
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