The curtain lifts and a gentle salt-scented mist rolls over the audience, its earthy tang hangs in the air. Flashes of lightning reveal a stark white scene and a formation of dancers moving as one before leaping out across the stage – the dance has begun.
A performance from Bangarra Dance Theatre is more than a show; it’s a meditative spectacle. The dancer’s lithe bodies move in smooth synchronisation, where traditional First Nations dance rituals meet seamlessly with modern dance styles.
Inspired by the area of so-called Australia known as Kati Thanda (Lake Eyre) and exploring the fundamental connection between Aboriginal people and land, the tenth anniversary tour of Bangarra’s Terrain is significant on multiple levels. It was the first full-length work choreographed by Frances Rings, who was recently announced as the successor to Stephen Page, who will soon bring his 32-year tenure as Bangarra’s artistic director to an end. Furthermore, the show’s themes, including the message of environmental protection and land rights, still ring as true today as they did a decade ago.
Terrain is presented in nine sections or ‘states of experiencing’ the terrain of Kati Thanda, each depicting features of the environment, the culture of the Arabunna people, connection to country, and ongoing fights for change. This is an intricate piece with many layers that can be teased out. The music, composed by the late David Page, incorporates voices of Elders, important historical moments, and the use of everyday sounds, such as police sirens, which are disguised within instrumental layers.
There is a textural quality to every element of this performance, from the costumes and staging to the atmosphere created in the theatre. The audience experience encapsulates more than sight and sound, with the added elements of scent and temperature enhancing the scene. The set design from Jacob Nash uses painted backdrops which create seamless transitions as the piece moves through each terrain, under the cover of Karen Norris’s evocative lighting design. Jennifer Irwin’s costume design operates harmoniously with Nash’s sets. In the fourth section, titled Spinifex, swaying skirts and twig headpieces woven into the dancers’ hair are a perfect imagining of the trees that surround Lake Eyre, which are said to resemble the gatherings of spirit women.
Bangarra is an important avenue for the preservation of Indigenous cultures whose primary means of sharing knowledge have been through dance and oral histories. As a non-Indigenous person in the audience, without the same understanding of culture and land as many others bearing witness, I am aware that there are elements of Terrain that would hold more meaning for Indigenous theatregoers. However this is a show that can engage on multiple levels and prompt you to seek more knowledge.
If contemporary dance and ballet are not usually your cup of tea, Terrain is an excellent introduction to dance theatre. At an audience-friendly 65 minutes (with no interval), this performance is thrumming with stunning visuals and gorgeous dance formations. As Frances Rings touches on in her reflection in the program, Terrain beautifully depicts our country’s unique cycles of rebirth, transformation, drought and deluge. In the decade since this show premiered, there has been more reverence for and research into Indigenous ways of understanding and caring for land, which brings a whole other level of timeliness to this tour.
Terrain plays at the Sydney Opera House until June 25 before touring to Canberra Theatre Centre in July and Queensland Performing Arts Centre in August.