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
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