After three decades at the helm of one of the country’s most vital arts companies, it’s hard to imagine a swan song that could possibly do justice to the legacy and vision of Bangarra Dance Theatre’s outgoing artistic director, Stephen Page. But as the lights began to fade on its arresting final scene – a cascade of golden wattle petals drifting gently onto the stage – there was little doubt that Wudjung: Not the Past was a production worthy of being Page’s last as the leader of Australia's top Indigenous dance troupe.
In the vernacular of Western art, this production defies simple categorisation: a multi-hyphenate melding of musical theatre, modern choreography, cultural storytelling and traditional practices. However, in his pre-show remarks at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Page offered his personal choice of a descriptor. Wudjang, he told us, is a ceremony, and that indeed rings true in the most essential meaning of the word – not merely a ritualised pageant but rather a process through which past and present can coexist and change can be witnessed. It’s a production that searches history, lore and extremes of emotion for its raw materials, and while this search takes both Page and his cast into profoundly personal and sometimes confronting territory, it also yields one of the most moving and fearless works ever presented by Bangarra.
Wudjang is created in partnership with Sydney Theatre Company – a first for Bangarra. This fusion of the theatrical and the choreographic produces storytelling in near-constant flux as it shapeshifts between song and movement, spoken drama and sound painting. The anchor of this fluid aesthetic is the Mibinyah words of the Yugambeh nation, the language that belongs to the people of Page’s father, based in the Gold Coast hinterland. Page has told the stories of many First Nations people during his 30-year tenure at Bangarra, but rarely his own. So it’s little wonder that such a deeply reflective work should also be a tribute to Page’s late brother, David, who died in 2016. As Page shared in his short pre-show speech, he could imagine his brother saying, ‘At last, you’re telling our story'.
And yet, as much as this work channels intimate inspirations, its gestures are epic. The show opens quite literally with a bang, as the deafening blast of a mining charge plunges the auditorium into darkness. As the dust settles, a colossal wheel extractor of the kind found in industrial quarries dominates the stage, its serrated teeth ominously rotating, while a slab of rock juts broken from the ground.
What always was and always will be Aboriginal land has once again been torn up by those who do not understand its significance. Burial sites have been disturbed, bones unearthed and with them, an embodiment of Wudjang (meaning mother), portrayed with mesmerising poetry by long-time Bangarra dancer and Elder Elma Kris. But it’s not just the descendants of the colonisers who are blind to the culture they’re walking on.
Singer Jess Hitchcock plays one of the most carefully drawn roles – a young First Nations woman, who, while respectful of her elders and proud of her heritage, doesn’t understand why knowing the depth and breadth of her culture still matters. It is her initiation, into a heritage that she did not realise was also an inheritance, that forms the ceremony Page speaks of.
The most powerful moments of this awakening are those where different creative tonalities collide. As we explore the horrors of the colonial-era genocide, an expressionist ballet of death leaves bodies strewn on the ground. It’s a haunting image in its own right, but when actor Elaine Crombie bursts onto the stage, a piercing wail of grief and terror shattering the artifice of the scene with a brutal stab of realism, the stark juxtaposition of art and reality hits hard. Tessa Nuku delivers a gentle lullaby, and yet the lyrics betray its soothing tune, as we hear of how rape and slavery and relationships that fell somewhere between love and oppression produced the first generation of mixed-race First Nations people. Heights are defined by the depths over which they tower, and the emotional peaks of Wudjang stand tall over deep traumas that should never be forgotten.
But ultimately, this isn’t a show about loss, but about hope. In the final scene, Elma Kris’ embodiment of Wudjang, the bones carelessly ripped from the ground in the opening scene, is interred with a traditional funeral rite. And yet, this is not the end. A younger dancer, Lillian Banks, steps forward, a symbol of the way First Nations culture exists now, aware of the horrors of the past, but strong, proud, and continuing to evolve. Page has told a story that has been more than 60,000 years in the making, but it is far from over.