10 September 2018

Review: Dark Emu

Dark Emu
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.

06 September 2018

Review: In a Heartbeat

In a Heartbeat
Barking Spider Visual Theatre and La Mama
originally commissioned by Monash Centre for Theatre and Performance
5 September
La Mama Courthouse
to 9 September

In a Heartbeat. Barking Spider

Barking Spider Visual Theatre make theatre experiences from memories and stories, and it's impossible to leave a show without finding forgotten memories of your own.

They start with collected personal stories. For In a Heartbeat, the stories were from people living in the dementia unit of a residential aged care facility. Their stories about love and relationships were collected by students from the Monash Centre for Theatre and Performance, who originally developed the piece at university and performed it for the residents of the facility.

Some of the storytellers found the stories familiar, but didn't remember telling them. One story teller was 104-years-old and died before the first performance; his words are some of the last spoken in the show.

It was such a heart-overflowing delight that it had to be seen again.

Knocking on the wooden door at the La Mama Courthouse, you're met by young performers in a 1950's memory of pastels, floral and pearls. Taking us to tables set for tea with bright table cloths and warm tea pots, each host tells stories. It's like a chamber orchestra of voices as each tell the same verbatim stories to each table – which are being played to them through earpieces and are recordings of the original storytellers.

In a Heartbeat is memories of tea cups and homemade biscuits, of silver tea spoons and glass sugar bowls, of gingham and crochet, of being young and being loved, of being old and being loved, of dancing, and of being a particle of love in space.

Now, I wonder if I have the ingredients in my kitchen to make my grandmother's rockcakes.

04 September 2018

Review: Working with Children

Working with Children
Melbourne Theatre Company
Southbank Theatre, The Lawler
1 September 2018
To 29 September

Nicola Gunn. Working With Children. Photo by Sarah Walker
My review is in Time Out.