We’ve dared the most political city in the United States less than three weeks before the election for a worthy good: Bangarra was performing Thursday and Friday night at the Kennedy Center, on its way to performances in New York and Ottawa. On the bill was Awakenings, a two-part performance stitched together from Boomerang (2005) and theBrolga (Gudurrku) section of Corroboree (2001).
The show was wonderful, both nights, but I’ll save my review for next week when I’ve had more time to give it some thought, and to write more carefully, as the choreography deserves more than the rushed job I could make of it this weekend. (We’re about to leave Washington for a visit to the Kluge Ruhe Collection en route back home.)
But in addition to the dancing, there was an all-too-brief question-and-answer session with Stephen Page and Djakapurra Munyarryun following Friday night’s performance. Questions were put at first by a moderator, who aimed to explicate some basics for an American audience who might not be familiar with the company. She got Stephen to delve into his family background, where his recognition of brother David’s score drew applauses and whistles of approval from the audience.
Several questions, from both the moderator and the audience, probed the dialogue between contemporary and traditional dance that is the essence of Page’s choreographic art. Page likened the traditional elements—both in story and in movement—to the seed from which Bangarra’s performances grow through a modern workshop process.
Eventually, of course, politics entered into the discussion, with one audience member questioning why permits were required to travel to Aboriginal land; Page was quite diplomatic in his reply, pointing to the need to ensure that the casual tourist was prepared to travel in the bush and that the bush was prepared to provide appropriate levels of hospitality: there are no Hilton’s in the bush, as he put it.
More pointed politics emerged in a question from the audience about the possibility of seeing Bangarra’s performance as a means of resistance to colonialism. Page’s reply was modulated, focusing more on the need to retain culture, and the determination to do so. Here, as often in his remarks, Page made the issue of language central; indicating that without language, culture cannot survive. He did more than once assert the hope that in 100 years all people in Australia could consider themselves Aboriginal, and that perhaps one day Australia (too) might have a black president and become a republic.
Afterwards, we waited at the stage door along with Margo Smith, curator of the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection and a group of students studying Aboriginal art with her this semester at the University of Virginia. We missed most of the company as they emerged from backstage, but I did have the chance to chat for a few moments with a couple of the members.
Daniel Riley McKinley is a relative newcomer to the ensemble, having joined only in 2007 but he is already making a strong impression on stage: his every movement is precise, muscular despite his relatively slight frame, well extended. He’s one of those dancers whose work in ensembles draws your eye, not because it’s showy and flamboyant, but because it is strong and on the mark. Leonard Mickelo shared a few reflections on the company’s recent performances in Europe; he was as enthusiastic about the French audiences as they apparently were about Bangarra’s performances with the Australian Ballet. (The London critics by and large panned the performances again, convincing me that there is a problem for modern dance in Britain.)
Of course it was a thrill to actually shake Stephen Page’s hand, and an honor to be introduced as well to Djakapurra Munyarryun, whose presence is as imposing off-stage as on. While seated on stage during the Q&A, Djakapurra had seemed reserved and shy, but in the cool October evening, surrounded by an enthusiastic group of fans, he was as warm and voluble as those fans themselves.
Bangarra is now off to the Brooklyn Academy of Music for performances on October 21-25 at the Next Wave Festival before traveling on to the National Art Centre Ottawa on October 28. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another four years to see them back in North America!