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Bangarra Dance Theatre - 'Bush'

by Thea Nerissa Barnes

September 14, 2006 -- Sadler's Wells, London

Bangarra Dance Theatre with artistic director/choreographer Stephen Page and choreographer Frances Rings presented "Bush" at Sadler’s Wells on 14 September 2006. Originating from Australia, Bangarra Dance Theatre prides itself in presenting dance work that blends traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and culture with conventional contemporary dance vocabulary. There is a synergy created between the traditional and contemporary that Bangarra believes sets them apart from other dance theatre companies. As pointed out in program notes, Bangara’s uniqueness stems from its manner of expressing traditional cultural significances and its ability to marry the spirituality of indigenous cultures with contemporary temperaments. "Bush" is an approximately 80 minute episodic presentation of danced story telling and autobiographic revelation. Each section segues into the next with the briefest of movement or musical gesture.

"Bush" choreographers, Page and Rings, worked in collaboration with Kathy Balngayngu Marika to achieve this uncomplicated but seemingly lush work. This particular work’s reclamation of traditional heritage facilitates the telling of Ms. Marika’s tribe’s ancient stories. Ms. Marika was born in Yirrkala NT and is senior woman of her clan, Rirratjingu. Ms. Marika learned her clan’s traditional dance from her mother and aunties; bark painting, ancient stories, markings and sacred rites from her father. It is Ms. Marika’s embodied knowledge that lends a layer of expertise and leadership to this work. It is also Ms. Marika’s performance that leads the ensemble into her sacred world.

With set design by Peter England, the dancers enter or exit between what appear to be low brush or roots. The set makes it seem that the telling occurs underground amongst the roots from which creatures appear or disappear. Then other sequences raised Ms. Marika above to survey and, as in “Life Cycle”, to receive the Moth, played by Deborah Brown. With lighting designed by Nick Schlieper, the dancers slither, glide or ascend behind the backdrop. The cyc is illuminated with Aboriginal visual art depiction or erupts into a gaping white light, a metaphor allowing a view of the earth as a bastion of wisdom. The dances tell several stories in turn to reveal forces alive in creatures that, though represented in dance caricatures, serve as metaphors for transformation and transcendence. The traditional is represented in flat-footed angularity in torso and arms and legs with grounded pelvis, repetitious sequences of beats circle dances and ritualistic spatial patterns. The contemporary is evidenced in the movement vocabulary with conventional transitions, lyrical, sequential, body pop fluidity and a profusion of yogic inverted work and flexibility.

Spirituality is this work’s greatest gift. It is the strength that binds the ensemble together and propels the story telling. Most of the movement vocabulary illustrated the physical manifestation of this particular kind of Australian spirituality. It is imbued with beliefs and faith in powers within humanity and also earth and the smallest of creatures. In “Women’s Creation” (Wirrkul Manda), performed by Kathy Balngayngu Marika and female ensemble, Ms. Marika does not speak, but her presence is the fine thread that traverses this episodic rendering of several Aboriginal Dreamtime creation stories from Arnhem Land in Northern Australia. The female dancers glide in on the floor from stage right with the sound of thunder and rain. Refined floor work allowed the dancers to move as one; no hand or bent knee was out of place. As a processional, they encircle Ms. Marika, the central figure, with intricate gestures of hands and feet, then return to the floor with graceful torso movements with cupped hands suggesting the caress of water or soft soil.

Other moments of dance entailed the same intensity of spirit but utilised conventional, modern dance vocabularies with yogic influence. “Goanna” (Djanda) is performed by Ms. Marika and the male ensemble who appear as spirits. Ms. Marika converses with the four beings whose entrance was clear and effective in a minimal kind of way, though music composed by Steve Francis and David Page contained a popularist, rock beat that skewed the opening ambiance that preceded it. In “Slither”, Ms. Marika and the female ensemble carry lights to form a metaphorical camp site as the sound also indicated the banter of voices as would be heard in the imagined setting. Ms. Marika and the ensemble go on a journey about the stage and find Sidney Saltner lying in a fetal position with his back to the audience. With the assistance of the female ensemble this sacred creature is escorted, manipulated, teased and entangled amongst their bodies. Saltner’s movement reveals its yogic influences and flows effortlessly between the dancers but, intriguingly, keeps a close relationship to the earth. “Dots”, performed by Deborah Brown, Yolande Brown, and Tara Gower, utilised conventional movement sensibilities balanced with traditional astuteness. They moved in tandem, clean and precise in each designed move. Their gestures both hand and foot, were not complicated, allowing the eye to see each minute gesture, broken line and swift turn.

The most captivating movement journey entailed approximately 3 basic moves seemingly influenced by traditional sensibilities. “Feather” (But’tju) illustrated a spiritual connection between Elma Kris and Kathy Marika that was so mesmerizing and the music so compelling that the danced moment was transcendent. As feathers fall to the stage and Kris is bathed in a blue light with Marika standing by, I was personally moved to tears to have witnessed such eloquent simplicity and Kris’ phenomenal performative power. The feathers of Kris’ baptism for the next life cycle became metaphorically the shreds of indigenous heritage and traditional belief systems for Jhuny-Boy Borja in “The Call”. “The Call” is an everyman depiction pitting Borja against a soundscape with harsh voices that seem to denigrate Aboriginal life and livelihood. The fragility of the feathers wafting about the stage seemed an ever whisper speaking to Borja as a police siren in the soundscape, an urban moniker seemed an inevitable, strangling force. Borja as the protagonist dances the crisis; as alluding to several tribulations: traditional and contemporary, racial denigration and reclamation of heritage, urbanisation and rural loss. The tenacity of the feathers, floating about the floor, on clothes, and in his hair, seemed to serve to compel him to embrace tradition and find strength within. “The Call” as a telling of the confrontation between western Christianity and attitudes and indigenous culture is a metaphor for modernity and what it is to be seated between these two worlds.

“Ceremony”, broken into three sections, was ritualistic and meant to celebrate death and rebirth. With the presence of Ms. Marika, the ensemble’s movement revealed an intratextual insight; with their journey complete, a level of transcendence had been accomplished. The movement and music, contemporary, street almost; then the sound of strings made the atypical 4/4 music hypnotic, slow motion but with the intermittent emphasis on a beat struck with an extended arm, a wrist, turn of the head, sequence of spine, concave chest and drop into plié. Simple eloquence and undeniable spiritual strength brought the dance to closure.

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