If Bangarra isn’t yet one of the most important dance companies in the world, it ought to be, and especially after this new production. The company mixes ancient stories and bold political statements with sublime physical movement and subtle choreography, using the white-fellas’ contemporary dance medium to convey the black-fellas’ truth, so that audiences can react to the works on every possible level.
The latest production, True Stories, presents two dynamic pieces of story telling. The first, (Very Old Things), breaks new ground for Bangarra in that it portrays the culture of the Torres Strait Islanders, very different from that of their mainland cousins. The traditional costumes are more elaborate, and the rhythms more closely linked to those of other South Pacific cultures, than those of Australian aboriginal people, and the result, under the perceptive eye and peerless choreography of Thursday Island woman Elma Kris in her debut work, adds another dimension to our understanding of indigenous cultures.
BR> Some of the ancient stories that she uses were passed down to her by the elders of the Murray Island people. They are not spoken of within their own communities, but Kris was given special permission to use them, so there is an added layer of privilege in their telling.
The dance pieces themselves are illustrations of an ancient culture, ranging from rain dances to hunting and gathering routines, and finally a gathering of men and women together. The choreography is magical beyond criticism, even beyond description, as the men embark on their fish-hunting journey with props of spears and fish traps, and the women sweep the ground with their hands and use their yam-digging sticks in the rounded sweeps of female symbolism.
Leading them all is iconic dancer Smilar Sinak, whose cultural heritage from his Aboriginal, Torres Strait and New Guinea ancestors adds to his gravitas as he leads the dancers in a stately and authoritative routine befitting a tribal leader.
The set, by Genevieve Dugard, is based on an ancient myth told to her by Elma Kris, of a hidden cave on Murray Island shaped like the mouth of a dugong. Dugard shapes the bamboo of the island to present this cave as a deep source from which the dancers issue forth warily, just as the myth itself creeps tentatively into a new environment. In the same way, Steve Francis’s music fuses traditional TS songs with modern hard core music to create a harmonious blend of the old and the new that is in itself a kind of reconciliation.
X300is a different piece altogether, a dramatically confronting piece about the atomic testing at Maralinga in the early 1950s and the subsequent effects on the so-called “empty” land and its peoples. The music by David Page strikes terror into our hearts, especially when it is contrasted to the gentler language of the original people, and with the help of new sound-cards for his computer, Page creates a chilling combination of sound and voice that brings the shame of this period of white destruction into full focus.
The set, also by Genevieve Dugard, combines images of modern and ancient landscape and effects. Sand crystallises into shattered glass; the X-ray effects of the explosions is portrayed through the crackling spikes of light rods; and dominating it all is a great collage descending from the flies that seems to be the wings of hundreds of desert moths, but opens and spreads to become a complex map of the contaminated waterways.
As a combination of sound, movement and narrative content, Bangarra’s production of True Stories comes close to perfection. It speaks to everybody, on all levels, and for me it was one of those few theatrical experiences that will stay with me for ever.
Artistic director: Stephen Page
Choreographers: Elma Kris and Frances Rings
Designers: Steve Francis and David Page (sound), Genevieve Dugard (set), Glenn Hughes (lighting), Jennifer Irwin (costumes)
Playing until 16 June 2007: Wednesday 13 and Thursday 14 June at 7.30pm, Friday 15 June at 8pm, Saturday 16 June at 2pm and 7.30pm
Duration : 1 hour 45 minutes, with one interval