This month Stephen Page cel­e­brates 20 years at the helm of Ban­garra Dance Theatre. Sharon Verghis talks to him and oth­ers about the jour­ney for Abo­rig­i­nal arts in Aus­tralia in those two decades

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

IT’S a late au­tumn morn­ing, and a sear­ingly blue sky arcs over the arts precinct at Syd­ney’s Walsh Bay and the old wooden wharves packed with crowds at­tend­ing the Syd­ney Writers Fes­ti­val. Ca­su­ally dressed and with a base­ball cap pulled low over his face, Stephen Page, artis­tic di­rec­tor of Ban­garra Dance Theatre, slips un­no­ticed through the crowds as he heads to­wards the na­tional in­dige­nous dance com­pany’s head­quar­ters.

A boy­ish, round-faced fig­ure with a Cheshire cat smile, he bounds up the stairs lead­ing to his tiny glass-walled of­fice, wrin­kling his nose at the pun­gent scent of burnt French toast; older brother David, the com­pany’s res­i­dent com­poser, has been mak­ing a late break­fast in the hum­ble kitch­enette. Down­stairs, the small foyer is in a state of happy dis­or­der, crowded with huge hes­sian bas­kets of coloured raf­fia be­ing wo­ven into mats by the com­pany’s cul­tural con­sul­tant, Kathy Marika, for Ban­garra’s up­com­ing dou­ble bill, Be­long. Tins of Milo grace the coun­ter­tops of the kitchen in the dancers’ new green room.

There’s a def­i­nite fam­ily sen­si­bil­ity about this lean 15-mem­ber en­sem­ble, which Page has led since 1991. He and David are ex­tremely close, ex­press­ing their af­fec­tion with a hug or ca­sual peck on the cheek, and later this month the rest of his close-knit artis­tic ‘‘ mob’’, in­clud­ing com­pany stal­warts Frances Rings, Djaka­purra Mun­yarryun, Elma Kris and the rest of Ban­garra’s sprawl­ing clan, will gather to cel­e­brate Page’s 20th an­niver­sary.

With this sig­nif­i­cant mile­stone loom­ing, he’s in a re­flec­tive mood. There’s much to cel­e­brate. Un­der his as­tute stew­ard­ship, Ban­garra has mor­phed from a rick­ety dance out­fit born out of a tur­bu­lent po­lit­i­cal split into one of the coun­try’s lead­ing per­form­ing arts troupes. Page’s for­mi­da­ble pub­lic pro­file has been built on lauded com­pany works such as Bush and Skin, and col­lab­o­ra­tions with the Aus­tralian Bal­let ( Rites, Alchemy). As well, there are large-scale projects such as his artis­tic lead­er­ship of the 2004 Ade­laide Fes­ti­val and his seg­ment for the open­ing cer­e­mony of the Syd­ney Olympic Games.

Charis­matic and ar­tic­u­late, he has been one of the most press-friendly faces and voices for black arts dur­ing the past 20 years.

But his ten­ure has been far from trou­ble­free. He has ar­guably had one of the most chal­leng­ing jobs in main­stage arts in the coun­try, hav­ing to jug­gle not only com­pet­ing cre­ative and man­age­rial de­mands but care­fully ne­go­ti­ate a com­plex web of black pol­i­tics and sen­si­tive cul­tural pro­to­cols, in­clud­ing seek­ing per­mis­sion from tra­di­tional com­mu­ni­ties to tell their sto­ries (as an ur­ban self-de­scribed ‘‘ yel­lafella’’ he has no di­rect link with many of these tales, al­though he has strong links with fam­i­lies in Arn­hem Land and has been adopted into them).

It has tightrope been a some­times pre­car­i­ous walk be­tween black and white worlds; his and Ban­garra’s tall-poppy sta­tus in in­dige­nous arts has made both the tar­get of frus­trated envy as well as plau­dits. (He told Re­view ear­lier this year that ‘‘ some of the con­tem­po­rary mob hate what we do’’.) He’s acutely aware of the pol­i­tics of skin colour, and says can­didly he may have been handed per­form­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties de­nied to oth­ers cour­tesy of his lighter skin. He con­fesses to hav­ing had thoughts of re­tire­ment from this pres­sure-cooker en­vi­ron­ment on many oc­ca­sions, then smiles rue­fully. ‘‘ But I usu­ally only say that when I’m tired.’’

Last year Page took a cre­ative back­seat to nur­ture the new gen­er­a­tion of dancers and chore­og­ra­phers emerg­ing through the ranks. This year, energised by this semi-sab­bat­i­cal — as well as by a rich, pow­er­ful stream of black sto­ry­telling on stage and screen in re­cent times — he says he’s rar­ing to go, and has two big works in the pipe­line.

ID, his first new work for Ban­garra since 2008’s lauded Mathinna, opens next month as part of Ban­garra’s Be­long dou­ble bill. Then there is Blood­land, an am­bi­tious dancethe­atre piece with Wayne Blair and Marika, open­ing at Syd­ney Theatre Com­pany in Oc­to­ber. It will be per­formed in Yol­ngu and pid­gin, with no sub­ti­tles, and, as well as vet­er­ans Blair and Marika, will fea­ture younger artists such as Meyne Wy­att and Rar­ri­wuy Hick, both 21. Hick is part of the fam­ily in a way, be­ing the daugh­ter of Guy­punura (Janet) Mun­yarryun, a dancer and cul­tural tu­tor who was a found­ing mem­ber of Ban­garra, and hav­ing ap­peared with the troupe. She and Wy­att, how­ever, are em­phat­i­cally of the next gen­er­a­tion.

Page’s new pieces ex­am­ine what it means to be Abo­rig­i­nal in the 21st cen­tury, an is­sue that’s prompt­ing much per­sonal re­flec­tion in this an­niver­sary year. Be­neath Page’s ur­bane ex­te­rior beats the heart of the pas­sion­ate young ac­tivist of his dance stu­dent days; raise the is­sue of black iden­tity, and that care­fully bland mask — the ten­dency to jar­gon and plat­i­tudes — melts in a flash.

‘‘ I was talk­ing to [di­rec­tor] Neil Arm­field the other day about this whole ro­man­ti­cism around rec­on­cil­i­a­tion,’’ he says. ‘‘ I think the gov­ern­ment has to get over be­ing the wel­fare doc­tor and deal with the guilt and move for­ward be­cause we don’t have to or need to be rec­on­ciled in this ro­man­tic way. I think there needs to be a re­al­ness be­hind what peo­ple re­ally think. I re­ally think it’s time for black Aus­tralia to get up there, not to get the shields and spears out for non-in­dige­nous Aus­tralia but to re­ally cul­tur­ally com­mu­ni­cate what sort of Aus­tralia we want.’’

Pol­i­tics and the arts have long been in­ter­twined in Page’s story. Born into a fam­ily of 12 chil­dren in the work­ing-class Bris­bane sub­urb of Mount Gra­vatt, Page chan­nelled his en­er­gies into a rich cre­ative life, craft­ing shows around the kitchen ta­ble with his si­b­lings and, later, chore­ograph­ing per­for­mances for high school con­certs.

At 16, in Year 11, a piv­otal mo­ment dawned. ‘‘ Ap­palled and frus­trated’’ by the

Ban­garra artis­tic di­rec­tor Stephen Page, left, with his brother David, the troupe’s res­i­dent com­poser

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