Bangarra’s Inventions

I’ve had the luck to see Bangarra perform three times in as many months: Mathinna at the Sydney Opera House in August and Awakenings twice at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC last week. I also recently purchased the DVD of Urban Clan, a film made over a decade ago that details some of the company’s earliest efforts. And I’ve been following the reviews of their performances in Europe during September. This immersion in Bangarra’s work has given me a new perspective on the company’s accomplishments, and especially on the styles and workings of choreographer Stephen Page.Awakenings, the program that Bangarra is touring through North America this month, is a new piece composed of older parts. In choosing to combine 2005’s Boomerang withBrolga, which was originally performed in 2001 as one-third of Corroboree, Page has made interesting decisions that reveal much about his work. He has put on display in equal measure his indebtedness to the general traditions of ceremonial dance, to the particular inspiration of animal mimesis, and of course, to the modern dance vocabulary in which he was initially trained. Structural analysis of the component parts of Awakenings highlights these differing elements of his choreographic toolkit and reveals his connections to Yolngu worldviews. Finally, the fact that it is often difficult to tease one strand of this weave from another may explain why the press seems so often to misunderstand the richness of Bangarra’s performances.

The group’s publicity and the tour’s program notes characterize Bangarra as “one of youngest and oldest of Australia’s dance companies,” a nod to the predominantly modern-dance idiom that Page works in while using ancient Indigenous ceremonial movement that he describes as the “seed” for his choreography. In discussing his indebtedness to Indigenous tradition, Page makes it clear that it is most significantly the Top End styles of the Yolngu that have influenced him. He may note the traditions of the desert or the Kimberley, and speak of his experiences working with Pitjantjatjara people or performing in dry riverbeds, but it is interactions with Yolngu dancers, either in studios in Sydney or in outstations in the tropics, that have left their mark most strongly on his work.

This Yolngu influence is especially evident in Awakenings, and not just because Djakapurra Munyarryun’s presence so often dominates the stage as tutelary genius. Subtly, almost philosophically, Page’s choice in pairing Boomerang and Brolga reinforces the importance of paired, symmetrical polarities that produce the living whole of experience.Boomerang is largely a men’s dance; Brolga belongs to the women in the company. Modern dance aesthetics dominate the steps of Boomerang, where Brolga, in both dance and costume, owes a greater debt to ceremony for its inspiration. The men’s dances are earthy and dark, drenched in reds and blacks; the women’s piece is ethereal and shines white in costume and lighting design.

Boomerang, as performed here, begins with parts of the “Gapu (Water)” section of the 2005 production. One of these, “Cocoon,” is itself recycled from the early work Fish. Page presents them with “Hunting and Gathering,” adapted from Skin, and the “Black” movement from Ochres. Within AwakeningsBoomerang comprises seven movements. There is a rough symmetry to its structure that looks something like this:

A. Ensemble 1. Nama (Looking)
B. Women’s dance 2. Raincloud
C. Male solo 3. Cocoon
D. Male ensemble 4. Nukurr (Canoe)
C. Male solo 5. Malarrar (Manta Ray)
B. Women’s dance 6. Hunting and Gathering
A. Ensemble 7. Black

It is not quite so neat as that, of course, but I think there is a deliberate attempt on Page’s part to build the dance along these lines, to introduce a rising and falling movement overall, one that peaks in the center with “Nukurr”. The symmetry is less than absolute in that the second male solo, Patrick Thaiday’s brilliant “Manta,” also contains an extended coda for the male ensemble, and the concluding movement, “Black” does not neatly echo the opening “Looking”: longer, weightier, it features only a subset of the men instead of the entire company and shares dramatic structures with he central section, “Canoe”. Most significantly, though, Page has deliberately selected and arranged his dances here in a manner that contrasts with the more linear, and narrative, structure of Brolga, which takes us from a moment of spiritual birth or awakening, through initiation to maturity (and possibly, ambiguously, death).

There are two ways in which the influence of traditional dance emerges in these pieces that comprise Act One of Awakenings. The first is in a limited use of traditional ensemble dance moves, seen most clearly in the first women’s dance, “Raincloud,” where the dancers clasp their hands in front of them, elbows turned outward, arms swinging back and forth like a pendulum in time with their stamping feet. There are moments in the final movement, “Black” where the men adopt similar stances, hands clasped behind their heads and rocking to the rhythm of their feet. Traditional dance forms also inform the “Nukurr (Canoe),” where elements of Torres Strait Islander paddling dance movements drive the opening sequence.

More often though, when they exhibit traditional elements, the various movements of Boomerang draw on techniques of animal mimesis. In “Black” the men mimic the leaps of kangaroos, and hold their arms up close to their chests in a motion that seems equally derived from short fore-legged macropods and Paul Taylor’s Cloven Kingdom. This is a premier example of the moments when the traditional and the contemporary fuse so seamlessly that the dance can appear to be both and neither, a state which bedevils many reviewers: see this week’s New York Times review by Gia Kourlas, “Using a modern imagination to take a closer look into the past” (October 22, 2008).

The most spectacular mimetic moments come in the two male solos, Sidney Saltner’s butterfly in “Cocoon” and Patrick Thaiday’s spooky, almost frighteningly metamorphosis into a manta ray in “Malarrar.” Both dancers display a suppleness that makes them look as boneless as the animals they channel. Both men keep close to the floor for much of their dances, and they both work with arms akimbo and stretched out behind them to form “wings.” Thaiday also makes amazing moves with a leg splayed off to the side like a ray whipping tail; Saltner’s choreography calls for him to often do something similar as he undulates and rotates across the floor, creating a visual and thematic link between the two solos. The two performances also share a breathtaking virtuosity.

But despite all these elements, much of what is presented in the first act of Awakenings does have a distinctly contemporary feel, for example in the extensive use of the floor. (Interestingly, the two mimetic solos of “Cocoon” and “Manta” are performed almost entirely on the floor and thus manage to look strikingly modern.) There are moments in the duet section of “Hunting and Gathering” that reminded me of the Europeans in Mathinna and their ballroom dances of civilization; in general, there is more of the fluidity and sweep that Page favors in his modernist mode, especially when he picks up the tempo of the dance. In the “Canoe” section there are marvelous moments when the dancers, working with an abstract model of a canoe made of lashed saplings and taut ropework, engage in animated gymnastics that make them appear at one moment to be rowing the canoe, and second later to move like the wave that lifts the vessel suddenly skyward. As they leap and tumble about they suggest an outrigger or perhaps a school of dolphins leaping the bows of the boat. But even these are all movements that owe more to masters of modern dance that to ceremony.

Mimesis and its transformative power in ritual, however, is central to Brolga, and thus the second act of Awakenings is anchored much more deeply in the traditional realm of Bangarra’s dance repertoire. Five women emerge from a nest in the “Female Brolgas” section; the entire company on their knees pecks at imaginary corms in “Feeding”; and in the penultimate movement, “Traditional Brolgas,” the leaping dance of the birds provides one of the most dramatic moments in the piece. The white-clay covered bodies of the dancers along with the slash of a red crown and the black masking of the eyes evoke the metamorphic mystery of ritual, even before Deborah Brown as the dance’s protagonist emerges transformed in the final moments.

Despite hewing close to traditional forms for much of the dance, Page’s inspiration here is not held in check. One of the loveliest moment of the entire evening is the short second movement of Brolga called “Journey.” After being called forth from darkness by Djakapurra’s plaintive “Didgeridoo,” principal dancer Deborah Brown is sent away on a spiritual journey. To convey the sense of movement through more than simple space and time, Page has choreographed an exquisite sequence, sharply lit by spotlights emanating from stage right. Brown seems to float through space at first on the backs of the male ensemble and then almost amidst clouds formed by the billowing mass of the men’s white-painted, shadowy bodies.

The opportunity to see this dance performed two nights in a row, echoing the performance of Boomerang I’d seen in 2005, and with this year’s Mathinna still relatively fresh in my mind, gave me a different perspective on the work of the Page brothers and of Bangarra. The company has always struck me as sui generis; while it can evoke a ritual captured on film by Ian Dunlop 30 years ago or a performance by the Alwin Nikolais troupe, comparisons never seen to elucidate the company’s ethos.

To appreciate what Page is up to, one needs to have some familiarity with traditional Aboriginal dance as well as with contemporary Western traditions; one needs also to set aside the expectations of the different kinds of virtuosity that come with each format. Page tends to write for performers in unison: this is characteristic of ceremonial performance, but looks less than complex when the movements are drawn from contemporary Western vocabularies. The extent of his reliance on the traditional vocabulary is often hard to intuit: I’m always surprised, having seen one of his pieces, to read Page’s notes on Bangarra’s complex and extensive web site and discover how much deeper the movement and meaning of ceremonial dance are embedded (see for example what he has to say about “Black.”)

There is a strong didactic element to Page’s work, which again sets it at odds with much modern dance, although Bill T. Jones, America’s premier black choreographer, has turned increasingly to an overt didacticism in recent years. The mimetic qualities of the dance likewise can play poorly with audiences prepared for more abstract forms of modern dance. 

And yet Bangarra’s dance looks contemporary: a viewer who encountered it in a vacuum, so to speak, without context, and was asked to label it either “tribal” or “modern” would almost certainly assign the choreography to modern dance. David Page’s soundscapes, even when tightly wrapped around Yolngu song or didgeridoo, are unremittingly modern as well and reinforce the contemporary qualities of the performances. And yet the animal mimesis, the costuming, often times even the props all exert a pull toward the traditional. I expect that these latter qualities conditioned the response of Gia Kourlas in the Times this week when she wished that Awakenings was “more than old-school modern dance with body paint.” 

Bangarra’s dance is far more than that, however, more than Grahamesque narratives tricked out in a different ethnographic past. There is depth of allusion masked by the appearance of simple modernity; it is an art that looks easy to grasp and critics mistakenly think it can be easy to dismiss. In fact, its art lies in the unique manner in which the two traditions reflect and enlarge one another. Page is not in the least putting red-ochre lipstick on Clytemnestra. He is a modern dancer whose work grows out of a deep pride in his Aboriginality and his joy in discovering the depth of connection to it that he is able to experience. Like acrylic paintings that come out of the desert, the melding of previously divergent strands of both form and content in Bangarra’s work are what give it its vitality and individuality.

Further reading: Check out Nicolas Rothwell’s lengthy appreciation of traditional Indigenous dance in The Australian this week (“Rhythm Sticks,” October 25, 2008).


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One Response to Bangarra’s Inventions

  1. Pingback: A Dance with Bangarra | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

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