Bangarra connects to Country with ‘Our land people stories’

Bangarra is not just one of Australia’s leading dance companies, it is also one of its most unique. Relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are the heart of Bangarra’s repertoire, with its latest piece ‘Our land people stories’ telling three distinct stories relating to Indigenous history. Artistic director Stephen Page took time out of the troupe’s busy rehearsal schedule to tell us more about the piece ahead of its Gold Coast performances.

“We combined the three works in 2016,” he explains.

“Unfortunately it was a sad year, because we lost the beautiful David Page who was our amazing composer. He composed all the music for the company, and in the middle of creating this work I lost my brother. It was tough, and we wanted to keep continuing to pay homage to who he is as a person by telling these stories as well.”

There are three stories told within ‘Our land people stories’. The first, ‘Nyapanyapa’ is inspired by the beautifully textured painting of Yirrkala artist Nyapanyapa Yunupingu.

“I’ve known her for many years,” says Stephen.

“I’ve had strong relationships with Yunupingu families, and her family has been quite instrumental in sharing their stories, songs, dances with Bangarra and they’ve entrusted their stories to us, to allow us to take their stories into the contemporary space. The piece celebrates the legacy of her artworks.”

Dancers and cousins Beau Dean Riley Smith and Daniel Riley then explore the kinship systems of the Wiradjuri country in their work ‘Miyagan’, with their real life relationship providing an eerie reflection to the piece.

“The Riley cousins actually met in the company,” explains Stephen.

“Dan had been in the company a little longer than Beau, and then they found out they were cousins, they’re both from Wiradjuri country. Beau was a lot more connected to Country than Dan was, so I thought I was good for them to work together on ‘Miyagan’, as it’s about reconnecting to the family kinship systems.”

Finally, the true history of Sydney is explored in ‘Macq’ by choreographer Jasmin Sheppard, examining the two sides of Governor Macquarie.

“He was – on one hand – good to the First Nations people,” Stephen describes.

“He was trying to have a sense of who the people were, but also he unfortunately he was leading at the time of a horrible massacre taking place. Jasmin’s piece is more looking at Indigenous history at that time and having a black perspective.”

It’s this critical perspective that has kept both dancers and audiences flocking to see Bangarra’s performances over the last 27 years. I ask Stephen what he feels is his greatest feat thus far.

“Just to sustain in the non-Indigenous world is a feat, people are amazed that you can still be standing,” he says.

“I think the respect of First Nations existence and spirit needs to be so much more recognised; we’ve been condemned as this stereotype victim for way too long, but [Bangarra] can get that message and sense of spirit and hope out there. We want to be empowered by those stories, we want to learn from them.

“27 years out of 75,000 years is just a drop in the ocean.”

You don’t want to miss the highly acclaimed Bangarra when they hit the stage at The Arts Centre Gold Coast for ‘Our land people stories’ on 23 and 24 February. Tickets via theartscentregc.com.au.

IMAGE: Deborah Brown, Elma Kris & Jasmin Sheppard – Miyagan, Photo by Edward Mulvihill

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