I had never seen Bangarra before, and wasn’t too sure what to expect. I’d heard the raves of course, and knew they were critically acclaimed. I’d also spoken to Artistic Director Stephen Page in the lead up to the show, so I had a good understanding of what it was about. But really, nothing could have prepared me for the emotional onslaught of ‘OUR land people stories’.
For those who are unaware, Bangarra is an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisation, reknowned nationally and around the world for its powerful dancing, distinctive theatrical voice and utterly unique soundscapes, music and design. ‘OUR land people stories’ is the most recent in a long line of contemporary dance performances toured by the company under the direction of Stephen Page, and is composed of three separate pieces.
The first (and by far the most disturbing) piece was ‘Macq’, which told the story of Lachlan Macquarie’s tenure as Governor of New South Wales and his relationship to the Dharawal people during that time, which began somewhat co-operatively and ended in slaughter and terror at the Appin massacre of 1816. The opening vignette of a grieving woman wailing over the body of a man set the stage for what was to prove an extremely confronting half an hour. Overlaid with a spoken track of Macquarie’s callous diary entries, the droning, throbbing soundscape by composer David Page underscored the feeling of mounting dread as we were gradually led towards the work’s climax. Daniel Riley gave a powerful performance as Macquarie. The dancers climbed a dais in a sombre line; one behind lowering the one in front to collapse on the floor, signifying the hanging of the “hostile tribes”. I prayed for that scene to end. In semi-darkness, the limp and lolling limbs of the dancers were utterly grotesque, and filled with pathos. Long time Bangarra dancer Jasmin Sheppard was the choreographer for ‘Macq’, and her anger and heartbreak bursts from the stage.
Next up was the somewhat more abstract ‘Miyagan’, an exploration of relationships between members of the Wiradjuri tribe and their relationship to country. Beau Dean Riley Smith and Daniel Riley – dancers who discovered they were cousins after separately joining Bangarra – co-choreographed and performed in the piece. In ‘Miyagan’, movement took over where the emotion of ‘Macq’ left off. While lacking the must-watch quality of its predecessor, ‘Miyagan’ nonetheless provided visual impact; the bird like movements, feathered masks and palate of browns and greens beautifully offset by the striking emu feather centrepiece under which the dancers whirled and writhed. It was also a necessary break from the tension. Matt Cox’s inspired lighting design deserves a special mention here.
Finally, ‘Nyapanyapa’ took the audience on an uplifting, sombre and, at times, playful journey through the life and works of acclaimed Yolngu artist Nyapanyapa Yunupingu. Her exquisite artworks, strikingly projected onto the backdrop, were brought to life by the dancers in front in a stunning sequence of stories and tableaus. Tied together by Elma Kris, who played Nyapanyapa herself, the piece explores the stories which inspired some of the artist’s famous pieces, and was the most visually stunning of all three performances. Stephen Page’s deft hand is easily detectable within the confident and evocative choregraphy, while Jacob Nash’s sets were utterly vivid. For all its noise and colour, feeling and wonder, the night ends in quiet contemplation as the grey-clad dancers lie, as rocks in the ground, under the watchful eyes of the real Nyapayapa whose image is projected onto the screen behind.
Dedicated to the wholly unique David Page, who was devastatingly lost last year, ‘OUR land people stories’ packs a hefty punch of poignance, fury, resilience, complexity and beauty that lingers in the mind long after the curtain has closed. It’s a visceral and imaginitive tribute to an extraordinary talent.
Header Image: Nyapanyapa (c) Edward Mulvihill