Bangarra Dance Theatre with Artistic Director/Choreographer Stephen Page and Choreographer Frances Rings presented BUSH at Sadler’s Wells 14 September 2006. Originating from Australia, Bangarra Dance Theatre prides itself with 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 steams from its manner of expressing traditional cultural significances; 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 segueing into the next with the briefest of movement or music 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 tribes 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 leans 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 the telling occurs under ground amongst the roots for creatures to appear or disappear into. 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 gapping 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 re-presented 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 works greatest gift and 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 glided 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 hand 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 that appear as spirits. Ms. Marika converses with the four beings whose entrance clear and effective in a minimal kind of way though music composed 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 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 effortless 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 gesture 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 bathed in a blue light with Marika standing by I personally was 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 sound scape 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; 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 though 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 sat 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; 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.
THEA NERISSA BARNES