Stephen Page's 24th work for the company traces a line from First Contact to now, through the story of Aboriginal leader Woollarawarre Bennelong
Bennelong Point is known across the globe, not for its name, but for the Sydney Opera House sails that sit on the land that was once home to Woollarawarre Bennelong. In the early 1790s Bennelong, a senior Eora man who had been kidnapped by order of King George III, persuaded his captor – or friend – Governor Arthur Phillip to build him a brick hut where those sails now sit. Prior to invasion, Bennelong Point – a small island known as warrang that connected to Sydney at low tide – was the place where young Indigenous men were initiated.
Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Bennelong opens under a large circle of light and smoke, in a birth scene that evokes another ritual. Artistic director Stephen Page’s choreography is immediately striking: bodies bend into the earth in movement that is steeped in storytelling instead of physical tricks. The tension is held from the moment bright lights cue the arrival of the First Fleet, through the twisted strains of Rule Britannia that mix with calls from a didgeridoo in a scene set in a London drawing room, to Bennelong’s return to Sydney and a community that rejects him.
Bennelong is a clever, moving piece that peels back the layers of history to let the emotion of this cultural interlocutor’s struggle sink in. It’s not a biography (though his is one of the first Indigenous histories to be recorded by Europeans) but rather a sequence of scenes: Birth, Fleet, Onslaught, Resistance, Rejection, and more. Shaped by dramaturg Alana Valentine, the scenes provide a porthole into a life lived between two worlds, but settled in neither.
As the story goes, Bennelong spent some five months in Governor Phillip’s home, sharing his food, customs and – after a temporary escape – becoming a mediator between country and colony. In 1792, he and countryman Yemmearwayne accompanied the governor to England where they were presented to King George III. They performed a song in a private London home that was notated at the time, and has been recreated for this production.
As performed by an affecting, conflicted Beau Dean Riley Smith, Bennelong’s sense of loss – of home, country, kinsmen – is searing. Each scene is punctuated by Elma Kris, who delivers the dates against a giant backdrop of digits – 178871 – scattering dust as she speaks. The historical narrative that this piece is traversing is complex, and it’s worth brushing up on it before you see the show – otherwise elements of the story can get lost. The real strength of the piece is felt when set (by Jacob Nash), music (Steve Francis), lighting (Nick Schlieper) and costume (Jennifer Irwin) coalesce to powerfully evoke the emotions of the tale.
Composer Steve Francis’s score holds much of the story together, with tributes in the music to the late David Page, touches of ‘Waltzing Matilda’, and the voice of Hunter Page-Lochard speaking Valentine’s prose in ‘Rejection’. The set transforms to take us from the relaxed hunter-gatherer lifestyle in Wangal, pre-invasion, through to the metaphorical enclosure of Bennelong at the story’s end. The interpretation of smallpox by dancers Luke Currie-Richardson, Tyral Dulvarie, Elma Kris and Jasmin Sheppard is hair-raising, as Riley Smith lifts them out of their clothing into their naked death.
We’re left with are more questions than answers, and perhaps more emotion than knowledge. In his choreographer’s note, artistic director Stephen Page ponders “the question of how we move forward while still being connected to our culture”. And almost 250 years after first contact, only days after the Sydney Opera House’s sails were permanently ‘clad’ in Indigenous artworks, Bangarra draws these questions out of the geographical heritage of the site, and invites you to consider them in a building that looks disturbingly like those First Fleet sails.