OUR Land People Stories

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OUR Land People Stories
Photograph: Edward Mulvihill

Bangarra Dance Theatre present a triple bill of works exploring Australia's cultural heritage

Bangarra are in a sweet spot with their new triple bill, which blends movement, music, narrative, art and history, within a particularly stunning suite of art-as-installation sets by in-house designer Jacob Nash. It’s a compelling package – and there’s no weak link, as there so often is in a triple bill. This is Bangarra at its best.

Jasmin Sheppard’s Macq (created for the 2013 showcase Dance Clan 3) is the opener and the wild card of the evening: a different aesthetic for Bangarra – and tackling one of the darkest chapters in Australian history, the Appin massacre. In April 1816, on the secret orders of Governor Macquarie, troops massacred the D’harawal people living around the town of Appin – just south of Campbelltown. The text of Macquarie’s orders is heard as voiceover, speaking of the “Strong and Sanguinary Hostile Spirit” of the Indigenous population, and his compulsion to “inflict terrible and exemplary Punishments upon them.” 

On a stark set, centred by a long dining table, Sheppard choreographs the dancers between a series of striking tableaux vivant, in which Daniel Riley, dancing the Governor in dress uniform, is the centrepiece. He is surrounded by a parade of men and women in finery, then beset by what appear to be hostile colonial troops wearing red coats and balaclavas. He wrestles with an Indigenous man in a choreographed fight on, under and around the table. He wrestles with his conscience, perhaps, sitting silently on one side of the stage, as we watch the devastating human consequences of his orders play out.

In a moving and beautifully choreographed sequence, the male dancers form a kind of production-line of death, passing each other over the makeshift cliff on stage. We hear the women singing a D’harawal mourning song; we hear the flies, massing.

With its electronic pulse and its stylised, contemporary look, Macq often feels more like Akram Khan than a Bangarra heartland piece – which is intended neither as praise nor criticism. This is a stunning work that adds an interesting flavour to the program as a whole, and which, in presenting a part of the Australian story that has been historically painted over, contains imagery that burns itself into the audience’s mind.

The star billing for the evening, however – and closing the show – is artistic director Stephen Page’s new work Nyapanyapa, making its world premiere. Based on the life of Yirrkala artist Nyapanyapa Yunupingu (whose forest-like installation of larrakitj poles was a highlight of the 2016 Biennale of Sydney), the work presents a montage of episodes representing her inner and exterior life.

Interweaving images of Yunupingu’s art, audio of her talking in language (overlaid with translation), his own choreography and music by Steve Francis, Page manages to capture the artist’s humour, her pragmatism, and the rich imaginative life that fuels her paintings – which have eschewed the traditional stories, techniques and symbols in favour of her very personal Dreaming. The success of the piece also sits squarely on the shoulders of Elma Kris, who dances Yunupingu and transforms herself into the older woman with movement alone.

The starting point for the work, Page writes, was Yunupingu’s 2008 Telstra Art prize-winning work about her ‘buffalo story’, in which she had a near-fatal run-in with a water buffalo, and the opening sequence of Nyapanyapa recreates this in dance. But the sequence that really brings her work to life involves nine oversize cut-out figures from one of her paintings (the ‘Wendys’), through which Kris moves as if in wonderment; we feel like we’re inside Yunupingu’s imagination. 

Sandwiched between the two works is Miyagan, a collaborative work by dancers and emerging choreographers Daniel Riley and Beau Dean Riley Smith, exploring kinship. Specifically, their personal kinship (they are cousins) within the Wiradjuri kinship system. The work is apparently structured around the five levels of the matrilineal totemic system: Nation, Moiety, Clan, Family and Individual – though that’s not readily apparent, on face value.

But Miyagan is compelling regardless: the choreography is expressive and elegant, and offset by gorgeous design elements by Jacob Nash (sets), Jennifer Irwin (costumes) and Matthew Cox (lighting); the human is interwoven with the seemingly mythic, with a series of figures with feathered or banksia-shaped heads moving amongst dancers dressed in period costume (referencing Beau and Daniel’s great-great grandfather Jack Riley, who lived on Talbragar Reserve in Dubbo in the early 1900s). 

Bangarra has had a tough time with the recent death of core company member, music director and composer David Page (whose music features in Macq). In OUR Land People Stories they emerge both resilient and triumphant.

By: Dee Jefferson

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