Poms Slaughter Dancers, Fall Asleep

I’ve been amazed in recent weeks to read the reviews of Bangarra’s performances in London at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre on September 14 – 16, and then on tour. 

While the best parts of the show – which feels long for its 75 minutes – are a lush and hypnotic celebration of nature … other sections suggest not much beyond girls in strappy tops doing a Jane Fonda workout in downtown Sydney. … I sensed shuffling and heard yawns. The Independent 

Dreamtime, you call that — though I found much of its 75 minutes more like sleep time. The Times Online 

And while the arc of creation is unmistakable in Stephen Page and Frances Rings’s choreography, there’s also the dead hand of earnest solemnity. … Are the women practising labour squats? Are they hoeing the ground? And is that a yoga class in full swing, with downward dogs followed by shoulder stands? Oh, look, now they’re having a nice sit-down in the lotus position. … The venerable Kathy Balngayngu Marika, senior woman of the Rirratjingu clan, suddenly looks like a bag lady dancing to the music in her head, not least because of the mysterious pouch hanging from her neck. … But these moments were all too rare in an evening that, judging by those seated to my left and right, was less about Dreamtime and more about bedtime. —The Telegraph 

The audience seemed absorbed, but the magic began to pall …. The soundtrack… also began to grate. –The Times Online 

The drawback to Bush is its choreography…. –The Evening Standard 

The results, though overwhelmingly atmospheric, were at times frustrating in the lack of insight they allowed for. There’s an unshakeable sense of something missing at the centre of the piece, a need for some unifying element. -MusicOMH.com 

Bangarra is known for its insistence on sources, its care for respect and authenticity. Page and his collaborators certainly mean well. That doesn’t save Bush from glibness. –The Independent

OK, I confess that I’ve chopped and tortured these reviews, and they did have some good things to say about parts of the performance. The British Theatre Guide actually published a review that was complementary in its entirety and concluded insightfully:

All in all, though, Bush is a wonderful piece of storytelling through dance, and evokes the Dreamtime and Aboriginal Australia in a way which complements the ritual, tradition and modern day living.

One of the dancers, Jhuny-Boy Borja, had some reservations of his own, which he published on his blog :

Last night Bangarra opened Bush at Sadler’s Wells and a handful of enthusiastic fellow alumni were in audience. As far as our performances go, it was possibly a bit too excited. It was our first performance for about a month after extensive cleaning and sensing the importance that comes with performing at this venue I was trying so hard to keep calm. “It’s just another show.” Am glad to get that first show out of the way now.

Other issues relating to peforming here at Sadler’s:
– with the distinct lack of eucalyptus trees in England we had to order gum leaves from a florist! They were undoubtedly quite pretty but it would have been better if we got a few rough branches in with the bunch.
– the venue hosts ballet companies as well as contemporary, with the results being that their rosin covered tarquet made performing our show quite difficult. Who cares if the odd ballerina falls off their pointe, when we’re unable to slide across the floor? Ban rosin, I say!
– and what’s with London’s distinct lack of decent air-conditioning?

What was the audience expecting, The Royal Ballet? Actually, they probably were.
As I think I’ve said in other posts, I live in a progressive college town (Chapel Hill), and there are two other large universities within twenty-five miles of the one I work for. Durham, the next town over and the home of Duke University, has been host to the prestigious American Dance Festival for at least 30 years now. And Raleigh, home of North Carolina State University (an engineering and agricultural school) is where I first saw Bangarra perform: they were on tour of the US with Bush in 2004. So we get to see a lot of dance here. The American Dance Festival, despite its name, brings in many, many international modern dance companies. In the 20 years or so that we had season tickets we saw companies from Argentina to Israel, India to Japan, China to Canada. I think in all that time there was one British company. So part of the problem in London was probably that the audiences don’t even have the exposure and the vocabulary to appreciate modern dance, much less when it is leavened with Aboriginal elements.
If I had to try to come up with an explanation for the reactions contained in these reviews, it would be that the work was too opaque–that the Aboriginal elements were incomprehensible, or at least obscure–or that the “modern dance” elements weren’t quite up to snuff. In essence, the reviewers were reacting badly to the hybrid nature of the choreography. Unable to judge it on its merits as indigenous performance, they fell back on the standards they could relate to and found the work wanting. In a few cases, they showed a stunning inability to open themselves to the unfamiliar: surely it can’t take too great a leap of imagination to conceive that a “mysterious pouch” might have some ceremonial significance. 
I’m not sure I have a point to this essay, other than outrage to get off my chest. I found Bush to be mesmerizing; it was the only the second time I’d seen anything of Aboriginal dance live–before that my experience had been mostly ceremonies that were part of the Yirrkala Film Project–but I found that the two traditions blended in a supple and invigorating manner. The second time around with Bangarra (Boomerang at the Sydney Opera House in 2005) there were moments that were almost sublime: the Manta Ray segment was on the brink of terrifying in its transformations and its power. I remember thinking at the end of the performance, “Pina Bausch, eat your heart out.” Bangarra is a world-class act; it’s too bad that the London press isn’t cosmopolitan enough to recognize that.
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