Bangarra: Urban Clan

I recently came across Urban Clan (Ronin Films),a portrait of Bangarra Dance Theatre and the three Page brothers, Stephen, storyteller/choreographer, David, songman/composer, and Russell, dancer, who were at its heart for the first decade of its life. (Russell died in 2002.) The film was made and released in 1997, at the time when the second of the Pages’ major productions for Bangarra, Fish, was taking life and taking the stage.

The film opens with a shot of songman and Bangarra collaborator Djakapurra Munyarryun’s feet as they stride across a dried, cracked mudflat in Arnhem Land. As David Page’s music fades in the scene shifts and travels down a tropical river before giving way first to shots of the brothers mugging in a photographer’s studio. Next come glimpses of Stephen and Russell dancing, and then home movies of the Page clan in suburban Brisbane (the brothers are three of twelve siblings). In a nutshell, that is the story of Bangarra: the melding of contemporary urban aesthetics and traditional Yolngu ceremony to create a new choreographic tradition, all born out of the dynamic of a close-knit family.

I once asked someone to explain to me what makes “modern dance” “modern.” Part of the answer was that, unlike ballet with its pirouettes and lifts and illusion of weightlessness, modern dance is about the floor: the connection of the dancer to the ground, to weight, to gravity. How apt this is for the Page brothers, who speak repeatedly in these interviews about rootedness, about a physical connection to the ground. Even in the watery illusions of Fish, this close connectedness of the dancer to the floor seems never to be lost.

Connectedness as a major theme of Urban Clan finds expression in many ways. For starters, there is the connection forged between the brothers and Djakapurra Munyarryun that binds the boys from the city, brought up without language and culture, to the traditions of Anrhem Land. There are several scenes in the movie where this collobaration is brilliantly demonstrated. In one, Djakapurra begins to sing, then as the camera pulls back, he begins to move in the simple, walking style of Yolngu ceremony; the camera pulls back farther to reveal a line of dancers from Bangarra moving in step with him, slowly replicating, learning, absorbing.

Later on comes another shot of Djakapurra singing, unaccompanied, but this time wearing headphones. There’s a cut to David Page in the sound booth, smiling as he listens. Djakapurra completes the verse; he pauses. David cues a clanking, electronic, urban beat, and Djakapurra begins to sing the same song again. The two blend into a single, coherent soundscape, and one might almost think that the vocal line was written especially for David’s electronic score, had it not been performed solo just a moment before.

And it’s a two way education. Djapkapurra smiles and sways to the beat of David’s music. And a bit later on, we see him dancing a pas de deux from Fish that owes its beauty to Stephen’s skills as a modern dance choreographer.

Both Russell and Stephen talk about the impact of discovering traditional dance. First exposed to it at the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association’s (NAISDA) Dance College in Sydney in the mid 1980s, the brothers found liberating inspiration on an expedition to the Top End with the College. Stephen was adopted by Mungajay Yunupingu and began his education in the selfless art of communal, ceremonial dance.

Each of the three brothers is profiled in turn. Early on, the most extended sequence of pure dance is a solo piece featuring Russell, followed by a number of rehearsal clips in which he performs with other members of the company. The middle of the movie focuses on David, who had a short but brilliant career as a child singing star (including an appearance on Paul Hogan’s television show unfortunately not documented here). Interestingly, a great part of this segment is as much about the Page family as it is about David and it includes affecting interviews with parents Doreen and Roy. Footage from Stephen’s early days at the NAISDA Dance College, of his apprenticeship in Yirrkala, and of his success as a mature choreographer leading a major Sydney arts endeavor round out the family portrait.

Yet the connectedness of the three brothers is never lost in these individual profiles. They weave in and out of each other’s stories. Stephen shows Russell a new set of movements or talks with David as he tries to assemble the score for Fish, who jokes that he’s “getting bad skin from going back and forth between salt water and fresh.” The three of them are seen shooting pool in Sydney with Djakapurra, and cheering David on at one of his performances in drag. 

Each of them comments on the importance of family; for them Bangarra seems to be a way of enriching their sense of relatedness as brothers and as family with the larger sense of belonging to an Indigenous tradition that was not part of their childhood but will clearly be part of the next generation of Pages. Near the end, before a performance outside the Sydney Opera House, Stephen holds his young son Hunter in his arms, and introduces him to the audience. A few years later, Hunter would perform with Bangarra at the opening ceremonies of the Sydney Olympics and in 2005 create an important role in Boomerang.

Beyond these insights into the lives and characters of the three brothers, the final glory of Urban Clan, throughout, is the superb performances exquisitely captured by director of photography Jane Castle and editor Emma Hay. Capturing dance on video is a notoriously difficult art, and one that fails more often than it succeeds. To meet the challenge of capturing the breadth of movement across the stage, of giving equal attention to the solo performer and the troupe as a whole, of defining detail while preserving the fluidity of the whole requires a special talent that the crew here seems to have been especially blessed with.

In the solo that appears early in the film, Russell’s gaze is locked in on the camera, which zooms in and out, gracefully, almost imperceptibly, so that his entire body fills the frame, whether he is twisting on the floor or standing up and spinning, arms extended. Occasionally when he is standing full height, the camera will zoom in for a close-up of his head and torso, then pan quickly down to his feet, anticipating a return to the ground.

In other sequences, such as the one in which Djakapurra instructs the company in traditional Yolngu footwork, the shifting focus of the camera and its distance from the dancers is used as a revelatory device. There is a lovely sequence late in the film in which a line of men is photographed from an angle near or below the floor of the stage in which the glare of the stage lighting adds dramatic effect without obscuring the dancers. 

Throughout, cuts in the framing seem miraculously dictated by the movements of the dancers’ limbs rather than by some arbitrary desire to change an angle or move in for a close-up. Although the overall aesthetic is obviously worlds away, the artistry of the camera recalls the stunning facility with which classic Fred Astaire’s performances were filmed half a century ago. 

Even the fades between dancers on stage and shots of the stringybark forests or the rivers of Arnhem Land, so often a distracting device that increases the “artiness” of the production values while obscuring the beauty of the dance, seem to work here. The technique is used most effectively in the final moments of the film, which depict an outdoor performance on the CIrcular Quay below the steps of the Sydney Opera House. Vast clouds of smoke from iron drums on the shore and barges in the harbor shroud the dancers at night. In the background the lights of the Sydney high rises wink through like the eyes of enormous nocturnal spirits. Spotlights give the smoke a red and sulfurous glow, and the fades to the tropical forest look like vast bushfires through which the spirits of the dancers travel. As with the best of art, the cinematography enhances the themes of the movies, visually uniting cityscape and bushland, reconciling the brothers, the dancers, and their worlds.

Bangarra will be performing their latest work, Mathinna, in which the theme of a journey between two cultures is based on events drawn from Tasmanian history in Newcastle on July 11-12 before opening for a month’s run at the Sydney Opera House on July 22. A series of international dates follow in in September and October. The company will join again with the Australian Ballet to present Rites in Paris at the Theatre du Chatelet on September 29-30 and in London at Sadler’s Wells October 7-11. Bangarra will then return to North America with Awakenings at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC (October 16-17), the Brooklyn Academy of Music (October 21, 23-25), and Ottawa’s National Arts Centre (October 28).

Update: Bangarra toured Awakenings to North America in October 2008; I caught their performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC

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