Bangarra: 65,000 year old avant garde

Aboriginal troupe brings new salience to world's oldest cultures in Canadian premiere tour

Carrying a torch for indigeneity. Image: Bangara

When, at the age of just 25, Stephen Page assumed the artistic directorship of Australia’s Bangarra Dance Theatre, he’d already been immersed, as a dancer and choreographer, in the milieu of the country’s premier, internationally toured, dance and opera companies.

So, as he tells the tale in a phone interview, he’d already sensed the gathering tremors along the global fault line between the relatively programmed “modern” dance canon versus the more free-form, barefoot, grounded  “contemporary” school.

But when a tectonic rift fissures, he also knew, it can open a vent for fiery energies from the earth’s deepest core. Bangarra’s very name means “to make fire” in the Wiradjuri language, and that’s what Page set out to do: tap into the living magma of the 65,000-year Aboriginal culture, the world’s oldest continuous civilization.

He’s done so, over the past three decades, producing at least one full-length, thematic dance programme a year, adding up by now to a corpus of work that’s virtually legendary in Australia and much-admired worldwide.

But, aside from a fleeting, one-off side trip to Ottawa on a U.S. tour a few years ago, Bangarra has given Canada a miss – until now. The troupe’s Playhouse appearance in Vancouver (locally co-sponsored by DanceHouse and Dancers of Damelahamid) kicks off a month-long swing that will take them through Montreal, Toronto, Brantford and Ottawa before concluding in Chicago.

The touring programme, called Spirit, features nine selections from Bangarra’s repertoire. But, atypically for a long-gestated, retrospective “highlight reel,” these excerpts show a striking stylistic and thematic coherence spanning the whole 30-year arc of their provenance.

Styles and themes, though, that were tantalizingly novel, to me at least. Hardly any straight lines; dancers mostly teetering off balance. Lots of sudden springs and pounces (accentuated by stark, abrupt lighting slicing through clouds of aromatic herbal smoke and liberally sprinkled ochre dust). Costumes (by Jennifer Irwin) comprised largely of feathers, body paint and leaves whose dry clatter braided into the atmospheric music.

And then, the music! Each piece (mostly by Page’s late brother, composer David Page) seemed to organically well up out of a dense tapestry of nature sounds: scrabbling insects, birdsong, animal cries, dry wind gusts, thrumming rain. Add in the inevitable didgeridoos, complex percussion, some recognisable concert instruments (violin, even a piano, and did I hear a Jews’ harp?), hollow electronica resonances and extravagant synthesizer cadenzas.

Top it all off with intermittent ululations in indigenous languages by Page’s co-choreographer and Aboriginal mentor, Djakapurra Munyarryun. No idea what he’s saying, but his recitations give the music an incantatory – almost ritualistic – gravitas, especially when contrasted with a few blunt, staccato bursts of recorded Strine at the onset of “The Call,” the next-to-last piece in the programme, which is about as close as Spirit gets to socially critiquing the post-colonial Aboriginal dilemma.

At that point, we’ve already come quite a way from the initial piece, which depicts a young girl’s initiation – at the hands of a shamaness (Elma Kris) and a host of exquisitely zoomorphic animal spirits – into the mystique of the land itself. Then follows a male initiation group, at once violent and tender, and a celebratory rite of female tribal solidarity.

Forest creatures, too, have tribes of their own, as evinced in a marvellously slinky ensemble rendering of a dingo (wild dog) pack. But the most breathtaking creaturely portrait of the evening, to my mind, was a pas de deux representation of a moth and her shadow. The barefoot, explicitly earthbound dancers somehow never seemed to even touch the stage.

On the other hand, a parade of dancing, leaf-clad women seemed to pave the stage with their feet as they progressed from one to another spotlight in a representation of the Two Sisters creation myth, whose protagonists literally make up the world as they go along on a primordial walkabout.

Which brings us back to “The Call,” where the pristine, primordial world has been sullied with the colonial overlay. For the first time in the whole 72 minute production a lone dancer appears in <gasp> pants! City streetwear! His Aboriginal spirit seems stabbed by the onslaught of Strine phonemes, the wail of sirens and all the cacophony of urbanized Southern Australia (as opposed to the more indigenous North, where Bangarra seeks its cultural roots).

The trousered soloist founders under the assault, but he’s caught up in the arms of a shamaness (Kris, again) bearing in each hand a censer of healing herbs. The cumulative aroma by now has come to pervade the entire 600-seat playhouse.

All the more so as we segue into the final scenes, where cast members, bearing smouldering brands, paint intricate smoke trails across the stage space. Then, led by the torch-bearing shamaness, all parade across the stage for a lingering curtain call before we head out, on gusts of incense, for the DanceHouse season-opening cast-party.

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