Channeling the Aboriginals

October 26, 2008

“Tighten up your soutenu,’’ urges Bangarra Dance Theatre’s rehearsal director Bill Pengelly, speaking to the company at large. “Daniel, be more confident with your ballet!’’ he calls out to a young man who, in between combinations, has been doing impressive handstands. “How are you doing, Elma?” he asks Bangarra’s most senior female dancer, Elma Kris.


It’s the last part of what Bangarra’s artistic director, Stephen Page, cheerfully calls “boring old classical class—they hate it!” and the 13 dancers of Australia’s leading Aboriginal dance company are tackling allegro work in the center. Ballet isn’t their usual beat, says Page, but they do this “for discipline.”


It’s a sparkling Sydney winter’s morning and Bangarra is at its headquarters in Pier 4, a converted industrial wharf that juts out into the expansive harbor. It’s just a few hundred yards from the Sydney Opera House, where Bangarra performs when at home. Increasingly, though, the dancers are on the road, touring widely within Australia and abroad. Formally designated an “international company’’ by the Australian government, which provides substantial funding, Bangarra this year visits Paris and London, and, on its sixth visit to the United States, the Brooklyn Academy of Music (October 21, 23–25).


Bangarra used to call itself both the youngest and oldest dance company in the world. It’s not quite as young as it used to be, turning a mature 20 next year, but the old part is still central to Bangarra’s reason for being. Its work is built on sacred creation myths from the time known as The Dreaming that have survived for more than 40,000 years.


Bangarra gives the rituals a “modern exterior,” says Page. From the earliest days, even when the company’s dancing was not as accomplished as it is now, the mix intrigued audiences. The attraction isn’t simply a question of aesthetics, although the company’s look is singular and vivid; the dance is also an expression of powerful spiritual forces that speak across cultures. And if that weren’t enough, Bangarra often presents pungent political themes. Being a Bangarra dancer, then, involves quite a lot more than conquering a slack soutenu.


The Bangarra charter requires at least 70 percent of the dancers to have either Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage, but not all have had deep contact with that heritage before coming to the company. Training is rarely limited to just one style. The superlative Patrick Thaiday knew his ancestral dances from childhood and later studied contemporary styles. Jasmin Sheppard started in musical theater. For 22-year-old Katina Olsen—the only one wearing pointe shoes—classical class is a breeze. She had a thoroughly urban upbringing and started ballet at the age of 3. This means she’s had to work hard to achieve Bangarra’s looser, springy quality of movement in which the body is often held close to the ground and elbows, wrists, knees, and ankles are typically flexed.


As for Elma Kris, she was planning to be a visual artist until she was 21. But as a child she had taken part in traditional dance forms of the Torres Strait islands, just to Australia’s north. She vividly recalls jumping up and down to an Australian Ballet performance on television when she was very young and her mother remonstrating with her. “Wanem u mekem?’’ her mother asked in pidgin. What are you doing? “She called it rubbish dance,’’ says 36-year-old Kris with a huge laugh and radiant smile. This undoubtedly influenced her decision to “wag’’ (skip) ballet classes when she finally started her formal dance training.


The task of melding this disparate group into a coherent whole falls to Stephen Page. The dynamic 43-year-old has led Bangarra for all but its first three years. He also managed to fit in, among many other projects, the direction of the 2004 Adelaide Festival of the Arts, the flag handover at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, and a big part of the 2000 Sydney Olympics opening ceremony. He’s also made four works for the Australian Ballet; in two of them Bangarra and the AB have danced side by side. This, from a man who at the age of 17 was working as a law clerk, had no connection with his Aboriginal heritage, and no dance training.


What he did have at home in Brisbane was a “crazy, imaginative family’’ (big too—there were 12 siblings) that included brothers David and Russell. They would join him in Sydney to shape the creative heart of Bangarra. David composes scores that put the didgeridoo and sounds of nature alongside soft rock and electronica. Russell, who died in 2002, was a charismatic leading dancer.


Bangarra’s work is not folkloric. “Like it or not, this is modern dance,” says Page. He is alert, though, to the ways in which traditional men and women move when they are performing cleansing rites, hunting, gathering, celebrating, or grieving. The dancers often stamp the ground or slither over it like a snake or a lizard. Surprising jumps appear to be achieved with no preparation. The dancers’ quietness and lightness can be compared to that of a hunter moving over dry leaves to catch an animal unawares, or the leap of a kangaroo. And while the work might at first appear grounded, the performers seem to rise from the floor rather than sink into it.


A particularly dramatic effect is when parts of the body move in strikingly different planes with different qualities of movement. Fast-moving legs might be accompanied by a smoothly undulating, tilted torso and angled arms. The effect of the company’s unison is entirely unlike that of a classical corps de ballet moving as one. This is a group of individuals with a common purpose and a desire to form a community.


With contemporary Aboriginal communities often deeply fractured, Bangarra hasn’t shied away from social, historical, and political themes. In her piece X300, Frances Rings, a former Bangarra dancer who choreographs for the company, took on the British government’s atomic bomb testing that affected indigenous communities in the 1950s. And Page has depicted the corrosive effects of urban life on young Aboriginal men. This year he made a quasi-narrative work, Mathinna, based on the true story of a Tasmanian Aboriginal girl taken up by a powerful couple in colonial times and then heartbreakingly discarded.


The BAM program, “Awakenings,” is a selection of excerpts from previous work. In the mystical “Brolga’’ from Corroboree, a woman goes to a sacred territory inhabited by native cranes and is transformed into a bird. Page calls it “the original Swan Lake.”


Page hopes to tour some of the company’s newer work to Europe next year. As always financial considerations come into play, and non-Australian audiences will not necessarily want to see the more confrontational pieces. At home Bangarra, which employs its dancers year-round, has not had a financial deficit for the past seven years and has also shown the ability to renew its audience.


Page evades the inevitable question of how long he will continue as artistic director. At one time he said he feels he could surrender the role, and at another time he said he’d hate it if someone new came to the company and changed it. However he knows one thing: “I’d love to stay for 40,000 years and be a spirit lingering around.”



Deborah Jones is a deputy editor of
The Australian newspaper and has been its Sydney dance critic for the past eight years.