Two in the Bush

Feature in Issue 18-3 | Autumn 2006

Miriam King meets Aboriginal Australian dance-theatre artist Stephen Page of Bangarra Dance Theatre.

Australia’s highly acclaimed Bangarra Dance Theatre are coming to London with their latest work, Bush – a lush and hypnotic celebration of beauty, ritual and music inspired by the Aboriginal Dreamtime creation stories of Arnhem Land in Northern Australia. Bangarra is renowned for its unique fusion of contemporary dance and Aboriginal culture, inspired by traditions going back at least 40,000 years, yet also reflecting the lives and attitudes of indigenous people today.

I recently met with Bangarra’s artistic director Stephen Page, who was born in urban Brisbane, a descendant of the Nunukul people and the Munaldjali clan of the Yugambeh tribe from southeast Queensland. In his work with Bangarra, Stephen embraces traditional song, dance and ritual, working intuitively in an organic process to create a physical and visual theatre that uses storytelling through the body, combined with a strong visual arts sensibility. Bangarra embraces the essence and value of traditional stories and brings them to a modern presentation – ‘celebrating identity, and cultivating a form birthed from indigenous tradition bridged with the contemporary’.

Bush, choreographed by Stephen Page and Frances Rings, takes traditional music and arts as a starting point, but doesn’t shy away from contemporary theatre techniques and devices. This is most definitely live theatre: Stephen sculpts everything like a visual artist, then allows it to breathe. Bush has a spiritual core: Stephen hopes ‘to have all the combined artforms breaking through to a spiritual consciousness’.

Each section of Bush is a vignette built on an ancient story. The first story, a creation myth, sees six women with ochre on their faces crawling onto the stage on their knees, like spirits coming from the earth. The performers ‘must embody the travelling as if they have been doing so for 200 days, crawling into common ground, into creation’. Mother Earth Spirit is played by the show’s cultural consultant and guest performer Kathy Marika, a traditional elder from Arnhem Land (a traditional elder is someone from a strong sacred and spiritual family who is still practising customs and rituals). Bush is less a piece about indigenous culture than ‘an indigenous theatrical experience’.

Stephen Page aims to rekindle a sense of culture and identity, working on ‘re-establishing cultural knowledge through the medium of dance-theatre’. Bush celebrates the stories and customs, the kinship and relationships between land, creature and human: traditional indigenous culture ‘acknowledges and celebrates the full circle of life, death and regeneration’. Important to the piece is the notion of Dreamtime, a ‘passage of rituals and stories to do with land, creature and human’. Each clan has its own significant ‘story’ that embeds and gives it the depth of their kinship, customs and law. Art is a huge part of traditional indigenous life: music plays a vital role – there are songs to the land, songs for healing, medicine songs, survival and domestic songs… Bush uses both traditional song and contemporary composition to take the audience on a theatrical journey.

Stephen Page has an enormous range of experience: he choreographed the Indigenous segments of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, involving a thousand indigenous people in an eleven-minute show which was a myriad of languages and stories; he’s made work on social and political issues, such as the Stolen Generation; he’s taken Bangarra shows out into the Central Desert, and made outdoor work in Adelaide Botanical Gardens.

He treads a tightrope, or indeed a precious bridge, in creating a meeting point between indigenous dance and urban culture. He also embraces his work with Bangarra as ‘an opportunity to be a voice through dance for the indigenous people of Australia’, the first nation, who are still fighting to have their voices heard.

It’s sadly ironic that the Australian Government and the Australia International Cultural Council, an initiative of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, support this tour and are happy for Bangarra to represent Australia overseas when this establishment is recalcitrant in acknowledging its past evils against the Aboriginal nation. The wealth of languages and cultures that makes up the indigenous culture of Australia should be respected and declared national treasures immediately – there’s no time to waste.

Bush by Bangarra Dance Theatre will be at Sadler’s Wells in London on Thursday 14, Friday 15 and Saturday 16 September 2006. See www.sadlerswells.com

Referenced Artists

This article in the magazine

Issue 18-3
p. 13