Bangarra Dance Theatre
6 September 2018
Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne
to 15 September
|Dark Emu. Bangarra Dance Theatre|
Bangarra’s Artistic Director, Stephen Page, reminds us in his program welcome that this is the “only company in Australia with its cultural origins in this land”. Let that sit for a moment. It’s a lot to take in, especially as they formed 29 years ago.
I thought about it at the end of Dark Emu when the Playhouse erupted with rock-star cheers.
Dark Emu opens with a giant blue seed pod. It’s not fluorescent, it’s more the glowing white-blue seen only in a star-filled night away from the city. It might not be a seed pod; maybe a map seen from above or a songline. It fills the stage and it’s from here that humans emerge.
Dark Emu. Black Seeds - Agriculture or Accident? by Bruce Pascoe was released in 2014. (Great interview with him.) I’d love to say that I've read it, but I only heard about it a few weeks ago when friends assumed that I’d read it; I WILL now. It demolishes the false idea that Indigenous Australians were hunter-gatherers before colonisation. It details complex farming practices and a reciprocal connection with the land – look after it; it looks after you. By telling the real history, it shows how our history was and is still re-written to fit post-1788 stories.
A revisionist-history non-fiction book is an unusual inspiration for a dance-theatre piece, but from the opening image, the connection between history and dance and story is so obvious that I wonder what we have to do to get every school-aged child in the country along to this show. It’s hard to change the minds of adults, but the next generations will see our stories though different eyes.
Not that we can’t change older minds. One way to start seeing things differently is to start feeling differently about them. The impact of art is often so hard to describe because it hits us in the feels before the thinks. Facts don’t mean much if you don’t feel emotionally connected to the consequences of those facts. Stunning works of art like this create the emotional link.
There’s narrative and story from Pascoe’s book that’s expanded with a focus on stories from the Yuin nation (south coast NSW). But it’s story without heroes or individuals. It’s about land and people, and destruction and resilience, and a hope and belief that these stories will be heard, shared and listened to. You don’t need to understand the detail of the stories about flies or fire to understand the feeling of massacre and destruction.
The choreography (Daniel Riley, Yolande Brown, Stephen Page and the 18 dancers) starts from and, mostly, stays connected to the earth. With no focus on individual dancers, and no straight lines or precise unison, it feels natural in its complexity. As does the colour in the design (set, Jacob Nash: lighting, Sian James-Holland), and the handmade costumes (Jennifer Irwin), which change with ochre and sweat as each season continues. The world is mostly dark and shadowy greys with fire/blood red, sky/water blue and new-life greens growing from the shadows.
One of the many joys of a Bangarra mainstage work – the company also works with communities and on Country – is how it’s not an option to try and separate one creative element from the rest. The choreography is integral to the designs, music (Steve Francis and others) and dramaturgy (Alana Valentine). And many of the collaborators have been working together since the company formed.
Bangarra may be the most vibrant, powerful and relevant cultural company in Australia and Dark Emu is as vital to our history as the book it started with.
Now, let’s all buy the book (from a local book store) and read it.