Stephen Page is familiar with the responsibilities that stem from occupying two worlds. Page, 54, has spent nearly three decades as the artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre, a company that’s devoted itself to telling stories rooted in Indigenous culture while also addressing a wider audience. It’s fitting that Unaipon, a work that celebrates David Unaipon, the Aboriginal inventor who showed how the physics of the boomerang predated modern aerodynamics, introduces 30 Years of Sixty Five Thousand. The three-part program, which is accompanied by the most ambitious national tour in the company’s history, commemorates the company’s 30th year.
“I first commissioned Unaipon by [choreographer and Kokatha woman] Frances Ring when I was the director of the 2004 Adelaide Festival and Franny was really able to dig into Unaipon’s mind, his beautiful spirit, the way he had a foot in each world,” says Page, who is a descendent of southeast Queensland’s Nunukul people and Munaldjali clan. “Now, we have to live with the reality of our social and political climate, the environment and Indigenous welfare systems breaking down. But we’re also navigating these conversations with First Nations knowledge. We’ve spent so much of our lives having non-Indigenous perspectives on our stories. [At Bangarra] we are always in the process of reclaiming them.”
Page, who took the helm at Bangarra when he was just 25, is no stranger to reclaiming Indigenous stories – or turning them into electrifying performances that often see dancers embody Country and its human and natural elements. There’s 1994’s Ochres, an ode to the ritual significance of the iconic pigment. There’s 2018’s Dark Emu, an interpretation of Bruce Pascoe’s revolutionary exploration of Indigenous agriculture. Bangarra’s 30th year celebration, Page says, reprises some of the company’s most inventive moments to date.
The company will also stage Stamping Ground, a production originally performed in Australia by the Netherlands Dance Theatre in 1986. It was created by Jiří Kylián, after the superstar Czech choreographer attended a gathering of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clans on the Gulf of Carpentaria’s Groote Eyland in 1980. Stamping Ground represents the first time Bangarra has sought an international guest choreographer to present a work.
“Jiří was inspired to go to Groote Eyland and see Aboriginal dance and the work is about how he sat in a ceremony for three days,” says Page, who adds that he was studying at NAISDA Dance College in the 1980s when he was struck by Kylián’s work. “The framing and movement are heavily technical, but the dancers bring their own internal spirit. What’s beautiful is that it has come full circle 36 years later. It is coming back on Country through Bangarra artists.”
Bangarra owes its name to the Wiradjuri term for making fire. The program closes with To make fire, a series of dance stories curated by Page and head designer Jacob Nash. One tells the story of Mathina, a Tasmanian Aboriginal girl adopted by Tasmanian governor John Franklin. The others traverse ideas of kinship and the power of looking to what’s next.
“To make fire is broken up into three worlds – the first is a ten-minute excerpt about Mathina, but it is the first time we look at her story through the Indigenous gaze,” Page says. “The second is a beautiful creation story about the four winds in the Torres Strait and the last deals with the energy of hope.”
For Page, it’s the right sentiment for this moment in the life of the company.
“The great thing about Indigenous art through this medium is that it is a wonderful medicine and you can find comfort in these stories,” he muses. “Right now, the identity of Bangarra as a contemporary clan with a foot in each world is the strongest it’s ever been. I think it is a beautiful time to start another cycle, like the changing of the seasons. And there is enough to survive for the next 30 years.”
Bangarra's 30 Year of Sixty Five Thousand is at Sydney Opera House June 13 to July 13.
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