A Dance with Bangarra

CLAN-JACKETMy first reaction when I opened the new volume about Bangarra Dance Theatre, Clan by choreographer Stephen Page and collaborating photographer Greg Barrett (Allen & Unwin, 2013), was surprise at the sheer beauty of what I saw.  My second reaction was to wonder how I would be able to write a review of a book that has, apart from two introductory pages, no text.  I’ll admit now that was a foolish response.  After all, I’ve written several reviews of performances by Bangarra, and there are (usually) no words to rely upon in performances, right?  And this new book, although it appears to sit comfortably in the coffee-table genre, is actually much subtler, more nuanced than a simple collection of photographs.  It is a sort of dance itself.

Let me begin by quoting from the Allen & Unwin press release, which sums up much of the thought behind the book.

2014 marks Bangarra Dance Theatre’s twenty-fifth year.  Clan honours this milestone and those people who have inspired Bangarra over the years.  By having its feet in both old and modern worlds, Bangarra creates contemporary theatrical experiences that are influenced by timeless stories and customs.  The land shapes the people, the people shape the language, the language shapes the songs, and the songs determine the dance—and the spirit flows through it all.  This is the Bangarra Dance Theatre.

Dancers communicate profoundly with the mere flex of a foot or hand, a shift of focus, the roll of a head, the transfer of weight within their body.  As the dancers move in and out of the space and light there is a momentum and energy, even with the smallest of steps.  Greg Barrett and Stephen Page in a unique collaboration have beautifully and skillfully given shape to, and recorded, these magical, ephemeral moments.  Clan‘s intimate and dramatic collection of photographs captures the personal, the professional and the sacred moments of artistic expression.

All of this is true, and yet there is much more to these photographs.

As I have noted in earlier discussions of Bangarra in performance, Stephen Page often structures his evenings of dance through the use of color, gender, and lighting, as well as  mimesis and cultural allusions.  All of this is present in the construction of Clan, and that is how the book manages to brilliantly capture the essence of performance.  It is not simply that Barrett’s talent manages to suggest the motion of the choreography through startling still photographs, carefully weighted and composed by Page.  The pages resonate with Pageian structure, echoes, and themes.

clan-marika

As is often the case, the understated presence of Kathy Balngayngu Marika acts as the guiding, tutelary spirit of the company.  Much of what is timeless, much of the “old world” that inhabits the contemporary structures of Bangarra’s dances, derives from their continuing contact with the ceremonial culture of Yolngu, facilitated by Marika and by Djakapurra Munyarryun.  For Clan, that role of presiding genius is given to Marika in just a few dramatic photographs.

Clan is divided into five sections, much as an evening’s performance by the troupe might be; with a single exception, each of these is introduced by a portrait of Marika, who also features in the book’s final image.  And thus the journey opens with a striking image of Marika in profile, her face turned toward the camera, her long white hair streaming down her back, her forehead and arms smeared thickly with white clay, armlets of parrot feathers encircled above her elbows.  And from her outstretched, magical hands, a thick curl of smoke ascends.  If you let your imagination sway ever so slightly, you can almost discern the figure of a dancer in those dense wisps of smoke.

clan-act-oneThe remaining pages of this first section (act one, if you will allow me to call it that) are devoted to portraits of the men of the present day company.  The first is of Daniel Riley McKinley, head thrown back to allow the light to fall strongly on his face, shoulders squared, arms loose at his sides and weighted by his strong hands, feet emerging from the shadows.  The background is black, as is the facing page.  The following spread introduces other men of the company: Luke Currie-Richardson, Kaine Sultan-Babij, Leonard Mickelo (with his modified Mohawk reminding us of Patrick Thaiday’s recent departure), and Waangenga Blanco.  The men wear the simplest black loincloths, and they are shot against a black background.  McKinley introduces the movement in a series of startling, dramatic leaps and postures.  And in the remaining pages of this section, the rest of the men join him as they twist their bodies through the air, twine their limbs up, around, and under one another.  There is heft and weightlessness together, frozen motion, impermanence belied by balance and intensity.

clan-act-2The second movement features both the men and the women of the company.  Once again, a portrait of Marika opens the act.  This time she is seated facing the camera, cross-legged, her cupped hands now resting on the floor, empty.  The smoke has dissipated, and there is an expression on her face that wavers between maternal concern and loss.  For this act the color scheme lightens.  The backgrounds against which the dancers appear are a deep pearlescent gray, their costumes white, their limbs and hair smeared with the familiar white pipe-clay.  They pose singly and in pairs, and once in a dramatic triple as Tara Gower and Jasmin Sheppard vault to either side of Jhuny-Boy Borja, who looks like the electric ground, the lightning rod that draws them to the elemental earth.

clan-act-3A duet for the Torres Strait Islands, featuring Elma Kris and Waangenga Blanco, occupies the midpoint of this performance.  The color this time is deep blue, so deep that it verges on gray-black.  In the opening portrait,  Kris wears a headdress of stars that fall, trailing feather-tipped from the night’s depths towards her equally deep, dark eyes.  In the final shot of this sequence, Blanco confronts the camera wearing the familiar dhari headdress of the Torres Strait.  There is less motion in these pictures than in the rest of the book; these are portraits of faces in close-up, the dancers staring into the camera’s eye, or into each other’s.  In one, Blanco contemplates a gott, the percussive cluster of dried bean-pods that is used along with warup (a large drum) and lumut (the hollow bamboo drum) to acompany traditional Torres Strait island dances.

In the transitional photograph to the fourth movement, Kathy Marika similarly cradles her orange parrot-feather armbands in her hands.  This movement mirrors the second: it is scored for the whole company again, men and women, and the color scheme reverts to gray, although deeper and darker than in the earlier movement.  The clay that decorates the dancers’ bodies is flat and smooth, almost the color of wet concrete, as are the simple costumes they wear.  This brief scherzo once again brings the camera close in, tight on the faces and torsos of the dancers.  When they appear in groups their arms wrap around one another’s faces or hold a group of three balanced along a horizontal axis.  Unlike the leaping energy of the second movement, everything here seems slowed down, tending towards stasis, imbued with resignation, determination, sadness.

clan-act-4

The fifth and final movement, again in black, belongs to the women, as the opening movement did to the men.  Marika sways, lifting her hands to her face, her eyes to a sound that seems to call from above.  On the following pages, a portrait of four women, again echoing the line-up of the men at the start of the performance, features Elma Kris, Deborah Brown, Yolande Brown, and Ella Havelka.  Most of the portraits in this section are again of the dancers solo, except for what it one of the most dramatic shots in the entire book in which that initial quartet is joined by the other women of the company (Tara Gower, Jasmin Sheppard, and Tara Robertson) in a frieze of outstanding complexity, swirling arms, crossed legs, all darkness and light, beautiful and frightening all at once.  In their solo portraits the women leap and spin with grace, with abandon, determined, thoughtful, torquing through darkness, conjuring not just Indigenous spirits, but maenads somehow captured and transported into transcendent realms usually reserved to kathakali dancers of India.

clan-act-5And then, at last, with a surprising suddenness, Kathy Marika lies stretched out upon the floor, one arm extended far in front of her; exhausted perhaps, seeking succor from the earth, or finally in majestic repose, it is impossible to tell.

Although these shots were artfully staged in a photographic studio and are not moments extracted from a swirl of movement on a proscenium, they nonetheless manage to bring the performance of Bangarra to life: perhaps as Yeats surmised, we can not in the end know the dancer from the dance.  The short video clip below offers a glimpse into the magic that created these images, and has the added benefit of augmenting the experience with a bit of (what I presume is) David Page’s musical accompaniment.

Clan is certainly one for your holiday gift lists, but it is also for the ages.  It is a book to be dreamed over and savored.  It has the uncanny ability to call up in my imagination single images and whole sequences of movement from performances I have seen over the years.  It offers an evening of dance with Bangarra any time you want one.

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