Bangarra challenges what you thought you knew about Aboriginal history in Stephen Page’s 25th work for the company
Bruce Pascoe certainly wasn’t the first person to argue against the hunter-gatherer myth of pre-colonisation Australia, but his widely acclaimed 2014 book, Dark Emu, pulled together a wealth of evidence of sophisticated and sustainable agricultural practices completely unknown to most Australians. It's a provocative book that blows apart a lot of what we’re taught about life in this country before 1788 and many of the apparent justifications for the invasion that took place.
Not only does Pascoe prove false the idea that Aboriginal people were simply nomads, lucky enough to live on a land naturally blessed with rich vegetation and wildlife, he convincingly explains why the evidence hasn’t been examined, due to both simple ignorance and a more deliberate reshaping of history by those in power. It might have been a bit more difficult for the Brits to claim terra nullius if everybody knew, for example, that Aboriginal people might have been the world’s first bakers.
To turn Pascoe’s book – essentially a work of scholarship – into a dance piece is a significant challenge, and one that Bangarra has met with extraordinary skill and invention. Dark Emu is a fair bit more abstract than Bangarra’s latest show, Bennelong, and you’ll almost certainly find it difficult to understand exactly what’s happening in certain sections; you mightn’t even be sure if the dancers are embodying people or grain. But it doesn’t matter much, because across the work’s many distinct sections you get a clear and evocative sense of working, rhythmic ecosystems, being carefully cared for and cultivated. That is until those systems are disrupted and put under immense pressure by an invading force.
The dancing is also nothing short of virtuosic. Artistic director Stephen Page and his co-choreographers, Daniel Riley and Yolande Brown, have forged a physical language that’s eclectic but beautifully fluid and cogent, and this production makes great use of the full Bangarra ensemble.
The opening segment is particularly striking, thanks to both the choreography and Jacob Nash’s ingenious set, which is a little like staring into an opal populated by dancers. We then move into a ceremony of seed, which moves through the full process of cultivation. There’s also a particularly gripping segment on fire and ash, and another in which the male ensemble members arrange and rearrange oversized stones, presumably so that a stream of both water and knowledge may flow through.
Nash’s evolving sets and Jennifer Irwin’s many costumes both bring a sense of nature to the stage and mark out each segment with clarity, luxuriously lit by Sian James-Holland. Similarly, Steve Francis’s rich and intricate score draws in electronic and acoustic elements alongside voices – although it’s difficult to make out what some of the voices are actually saying at certain points.
But this is an entirely captivating 70 minutes of dance theatre, which feels both revitalising and politically potent. It’s a hugely ambitious work and one that could only have been pulled off by a company like Bangarra – at the absolute top of its game and with a decent degree of daring.