Of the many friends I’ve made in Australia over the years, there are none I cherish quite so much as Jonathan and Penny, who have opened their home to me, let me read drafts of sonnets on the occasion of a son’s wedding, and ferried me around New South Wales. And today, thanks especially to Penny, gave me the chance to speak at a lunchtime lecture to the students in the fine arts program at the Meadowbank TAFE. About fifty people showed up to hear a Yank burble on about his enthusiasm for Australian Indigenous art, and they were warmly appreciative, even of some of my weaker jokes. It was a lovely experience, topped off by lunch at Revolver, a (in my mind) famous corner café in Annandale.
Later in the evening, J&P joined us at the Sydney Opera House to see Bangarra’s new performance Belong. Bangarra always manages to surprise me from year to year, and this performance was no exception.
The first part of the evening is Elma Kris’s meditation on the winds of her hative Torries Strait, called About. It’s a gentle work, with unison ensemble dancing dominating the form, sometimes led by a pricipal dancer or a duet. Deborah Brown has great presence in the first of these sections, “Zey” and Waangenga Blanco, in a final duet with Kris herself, has enormous presence.
One element that was common to both About and to Stephen Page’s ID, which forms the second half of the evening, is an extremely clever use of what I call “stage business.” I tend to cringe when dance companies bring props on stage, or when there are manufactured effects introduced into the dance. There’s often the awkward business of getting the prop off stage once its utility is expended, or the distracting worry about what will happen if the dry ice produces too much in the way of atmospherics. But in About, the use of a smoke machine to create the cloudscapes on stage that the dancers emerge from is beautifully controlled—choreographed, almost.
Likewise, the live camera work in ID could have been distracting, but instead it proved mesmerizing. At the opening of the piece, a seemingly abstract pattern on a tall video projection resolves itself into Kathy Marika’s face; she is then joined, as the camera pulls away, by other members of the troupe. (The effect did remind me a bit of Bill Viola’s Observance, currently on display in the Kaldor Collection at the AGNSW.) When Daniel Riley McKinley spills out from the side of the video display onto the stage, the effect is startling and spellbreaking, in a good sense.
There have been many reports in the press that Page is feeling ready to move on after twenty years with Bangarra, but if ID is any indication, the man has got his groove on in a major way and shows no signs of burnout. The choreography felt fresh and inspired throughout and was a joy to behold. The second part of ID, “Caste,” offered a grisly new interpretation of the idea that Aborigines have been butchered in Australian history and ended with a humorous look at a group of schoolchildren who, mirroring an idea of Bindi Cole’s, have to blacken there faces to look properly Aboriginal for their school photograph.
“Totem” is spooky: set in a landscape of burnt-out eucalypts, it is another example of Page’s skill at handling a stage set to great effect. Kathy Marika’s face hovers above the company like a tutelary spirit in the final section, for the full ensemble, called “Kinship.” It is a rousing conclusion to the evening, with the dancers snaking around the stage, beating out a complicated rhythm with their feet that echoes the stuttering patterns of Daniel McKinley’s opening solo, and it makes you want to get up and join their dance.
It’s good to be back in Sydney, good to be back in the Opera House with Bangarra, and good to be back among old friends.