Bangarra Dance Theatre Sydney Opera House (touring Canberra, Brisbane, Melbourne)
On the way to the Sydney Opera House to see Bennelong, I passed a window displaying a portrait of the Wangal man. Alongside it hung a collection of the humiliating breastplates foisted on Bennelong and other First Australians by the English invaders. The building, one of Sydney’s most luxurious, is home to Macquarie Bank.
Nobody owns a story, they say. But that’s in an ideal world where everybody has equal access. Bangarra Dance Theatre’s version of Bennelong takes the man as close to his people as possible; the company’s headquarters on the harbour is right near where he was born. Bennelong was just over 20 in 1789, and his interactions with the English were intense. He learnt the language, travelled to England, adopted Western dress and the habit of alcohol, and died tragically young. His life was the prototype of a person trying to fit into two cultures; the success, or failure, of that endeavour is what this work explores.
Although this work is about an individual, artistic director Stephen Page fittingly defines Bennelong in terms of country and community. Dominating the show are ensemble pieces, more or less chronological. The early vignettes are thrilling, the whoosh and stamp of the dancers melding seamlessly with Steve Francis’ sound, the energy pouring off the stage. In a depiction of first contact, the dancers sniff one another – a subtle gesture, hard to choreograph, but here rendered in the most deft, witty, primal way. Much of the tragedy and violence experienced by Bennelong and his best-known wife, Barangaroo, isn’t depicted, and the spearing of Governor Phillip at Manly Cove gets a bit lost. But ‘Onslaught’, about smallpox, is intensely moving, bringing us close to those thousands of deaths.
The company is currently 18 members strong, their work together cohesive and fluid. Beau Dean Riley Smith as Bennelong is consistently powerful and magnetic. Other stand-out performances come from Elma Kris and Yolanda Lowatta.
Jennifer Irwin’s costumes blend the contemporary and traditional, and Francis weaves in music from long-time Bangarra collaborator Matthew Doyle and other composers, but the masterstroke is the use of the text by dramaturg Alana Valentine. Words float through as concise and evocative as poetry.
The ending is terrific, Bennelong’s fate preserving, concealing or imprisoning him. Which took me back to that window display. To wondering about ownership. Macquarie Bank has been one of the company’s benefactors. In these dire times for funding it is good to see Bangarra endure. The generosity of this dance company is legendary; behind every production is work in communities across the continent. Bennelong will tour over the next three months. See it if you can.