MAK­ING FIRE

Twenty-five years af­ter Ban­garra Dance Theatre was founded, it re­mains as po­lit­i­cal as ever

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page -

OUT­SIDE, it’s a bright late au­tumn’s day in Syd­ney. But here, in this stu­dio at Ban­garra, all is in heavy shadow. The pale moon face of com­pany di­rec­tor Stephen Page swims out of the dancing dust motes, fol­lowed by the rest of his stocky, short-legged frame as he “hunts qui­etly” — his metaphor for the cre­ative process — on the perime­ter of his six male dancers. Un­der Page’s in­struc­tions they hunt qui­etly too, flow­ing into grace­ful ge­ome­tries: squares, rec­tan­gles and tri­an­gles, re­form­ing into a spear­head of birds in flight, a pil­lar of ad­vanc­ing soldiers. In one cor­ner guest artist Thomas Green­field stretches his rub­bery frame as Ban­garra dancer Jas­min Shep­pard watches in med­i­ta­tive si­lence.

At 48, Page, Ban­garra Dance Theatre’s artis­tic di­rec­tor since 1991, re­mains sur­pris­ingly nim­ble, at one point corkscrew­ing his pudgy body into a one-armed hand­stand. There is a re­spect­ful hush around “Mr Boss Man” as he’s af­fec­tion­ately been called by Ban­garra’s cul­tural elders: com­pany dancer Waan­genga Blanco says he “could be quite stern” in his younger years though he’s mel­lowed some­what these days, more be­nign pa­tri­arch than au­to­crat, a man of dry jokes, al­ways up for a boo­gie and a game of pool, happy to clean and mop the green room, write rental ref­er­ences for his dancers, buy them lunch. But still, there’s a pal­pa­ble def­er­ence in the room. This, af­ter all, is “that clever bas­tard Ste­vie,” as older brother David de­scribes him — indige­nous icon and con­tem­po­rary el­der, grand man of Aus­tralian dance.

Step by step, Ban­garra’s lat­est work, Patye­garang, is be­ing read­ied for its pre­miere this month. Mark­ing the com­pany’s 25th an­niver­sary, it tells the tale of the young Eora woman, Patye­garang, played by Shep­pard, who be­friended First Fleet as­tronomer Lieu­tenant Wil­liam Dawes and taught him her lan­guage; Dawes recorded Patye­garang’s gift, the words of the Eora people, in note­books that were only re­dis­cov­ered in 1972. This is no “white guilt”-in­duc­ing polemic, says Page, but a pow­er­ful “story of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and hope and pride” be­tween black and white Aus­tralia; it’s a timely coun­ter­point, too, to the cur­rent neg­a­tive pub­lic dis­course around racial iden­tity, skin colour and the push for indige­nous recog­ni­tion in the Con­sti­tu­tion.

“It’s long over­due,” he says with some ex­as­per­a­tion of the lat­ter. “It’s such a hu­man sym­bolic ges­ture and yet people beat around the bush about it. To think that over 220 years ago, there was this sense of un­der­stand­ing, the shar­ing of lan­guage. Where is that to­day? Where is our Patye­garang?” NEXT door in the dark cave of his stu­dio, sur­rounded by a Kawai piano with yel­low­ing keys and a bank of com­put­ers, com­poser David Page, an owlish fig­ure in a black suit, is hunt­ing qui­etly him­self through a thicket of notes and chords for the sound­scape for the new work. “It’s a tale of first con­tact,” he says, scratch­ing his bald head. “How do you tell this story in mu­sic?” From con­tem­po­rary Patye­garangs (is she Ban­garra chair Larissa Behrendt, asks Page, “with her iPads and Jimmy Choos and flu­ent lan­guage?”) to rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, from tall pop­pies to art as po­lit­i­cal medicine, the Page broth­ers are in a re­flec­tive mood this morn­ing as they sit down for a chat with Re­view. Ban­garra’s quar­ter-century mile­stone sparks the un­furl­ing of a rich spool of mem­o­ries about early am­bi­tions and blue­prints, the some­times per­ilous and al­ways highly sen­si­tive tightrope walk they’ve had to ne­go­ti­ate be­tween cul­tures and val­ues,

June 7-8, 2014 the goals scored and missed, pol­i­tics, per­son­al­i­ties and pro­to­cols. For all the plau­dits — Ban­garra “is the en­gine room for the de­bate about big­ger ques­tions of iden­tity, who we are; it takes Aus­tralia, rein­ter­prets it, and serves it back to us,” says di­rec­tor Rachel Perkins — there have been plenty of stones thrown and “mean-spir­ited chat­ter” says Behrendt; for all the praise for in­no­va­tion and cre­ativ­ity there have been fin­gers pointed over per­ceived cul­tural in­au­then­tic­ity and “stag­nant” move­ment vo­cab­u­lary.

Who’d want to lead a pi­o­neer­ing com­pany like Ban­garra, such a highly vis­i­ble, tempt­ing tar­get for many? Stephen Page, say his many loyal sup­port­ers, has had a lonely and some­times tor­rid time of things as Aus­tralia’s ar­guably most prom­i­nent indige­nous cul­tural face. “Lucky my back is tough like a goanna’s for col­lect­ing the cul­tural spears and bul­lets,” the di­rec­tor grunts as he dis­sects a sand­wich dur­ing lunch break.

Look­ing around at the com­pany — these days boast­ing a staff of 46, 14 dancers, an an­nual budget of $7.2 mil­lion, an alum­nus of more than 100 leading indige­nous artists and 30 clan elders, a de­mand­ing in­ter­na­tional tour­ing sched­ule (re­cent stops in­clude Viet­nam, Mon­go­lia, Jakarta and the Hol­land Dance Fes­ti­val), and a scenic har­bour­side home at Walsh Bay (though David’s had enough of this “float­ing” busi­ness and han­kers for a re­turn, full cy­cle, to a land base in Red­fern) there’s a quiet sense of a job well done, a hard jour­ney ac­com­plished.

Ris­ing from a tiny en­sem­ble op­er­at­ing out of a hum­ble Glebe liv­ing room to Aus­tralia’s pre­miere indige­nous cul­tural flag­ship, Ban­garra — indige­nous in­cu­ba­tor, ar­chive, li­brary, mem­ory bank, en­gine room — owes a debt to many, says Stephen. From indige­nous and Tor­res Strait Is­lan­der cul­tural elders to the ac­tivists and artists of the 60s and 70s — the Mazas and Perkins, Dixons and Sy­rons — who laid the foun­da­tions for black self-de­ter­mi­na­tion, Ban­garra, say the Pages, “be­longs to them all.”

“I was sup­posed to be an ex­per­i­ment for the (Aus­tralian Arts) Coun­cil to see what would hap­pen when a black Amer­i­can dancer came into con­tact with the Abo­rig­i­nal people.” So wrote charis­matic African-Amer­i­can ac­tivist, arts ad­min­is­tra­tor, Juil­liard grad­u­ate and dancer Ca­role John­son in an ar­ti­cle ex­am­in­ing the rise of dance and theatre as po­lit­i­cal tools in black Aus­tralia, ti­tled “For The Aus­tralian Abo­rig­ine — Now Is The Time to Dance”, two years af­ter she first ar­rived in Aus­tralia on tour with New York’s Eleo Po­mare dance com­pany. John­son ar­rived in 1972, a year which “marked a cru­cial turn­ing point in the af­fairs of the Abo­rig­ine,” as she put it. Struck by the pas­sion­ate en­ergy of the bur­geon­ing indige­nous self-de­ter­mi­na­tion move­ment ex­plod­ing across the na­tion and ex­pressed so vividly at Red­fern’s Na­tional Black Theatre and at Can­berra’s Tent Em­bassy, she stayed on, even­tu­ally get­ting a grant to set up a dance work­shop in a dusty Red­fern church hall that drew cu­ri­ous mem­bers of Syd­ney’s ur­ban Abo­rig­i­nal pop­u­la­tion “who knew as lit­tle about their own tra­di­tions as they did mine.”

Slowly, these early work­shop pieces took on a po­lit­i­cal flavour coloured by the times; be­fore 1972, John­son later noted, “Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ples had not con­sid­ered con­tem­po­rary dance as a ve­hi­cle for so­cial change or build­ing cul­ture.” John­son marched along­side her stu­dents at mas­sive land rights demon­stra­tions in Syd­ney and Can­berra, her work­shop’s first the­atri­cal per­for­mance, Em­bassy, based on an em­bry­onic fu­sion of con­tem­po­rary and tra­di­tional dance styles, de­but­ing at a Quaker meet­ing house in Surry Hills in Septem­ber 1972. John­son would then lead a new Ca­reers in Dance indige­nous dance train­ing course in Red­fern that sowed the seeds for the birth of the Abo­rig­i­nal Is­lan­der Dance Theatre in 1976. “Cre­at­ing arts com­pa­nies, es­pe­cially theatre com­pa­nies, were goals that I heard from black people, Abo­rig­i­nal people, shortly af­ter my ar­rival in Aus­tralia,” John­son says in an email to Re­view from the US. “That was the dream and cry I heard from the people I met in the early 70s. We’ve got so many tal­ented people. Why aren’t we?”

AIDT (later NAISDA) would go on to be­come an in­flu­en­tial indige­nous po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural hub, but in 1989, as in­ter­nal feuds erupted over man­age­ment and cul­tural pol­i­tics, John­son left to set up Ban­garra (a Wi­rad­juri word mean­ing “to make fire”) as a pro­fes­sional per­form­ing com­pany for AIDT grad­u­ates be­fore Ch­eryl Stone and Robin Bryant took over the ad­min­is­tra­tive lead­er­ship.

David Page de­scribes Ban­garra’s founder as a dy­namic high achiever who some found “quite scary” cour­tesy of her brisk, no-non­sense ef­fi­ciency and who sadly fell vic­tim to pre­vail­ing racial pol­i­tics, which dis­crim­i­nated against nonA­bo­rig­ines in lead­er­ship po­si­tions: “She felt a bit un­com­fort­able, I think, be­cause she wasn’t indige­nous. That kind of be­hav­iour, es­pe­cially from our mob, made me very, very sad. I used to stick up for her and say ‘Hey, she was our founder’. If she hadn’t come here, there wouldn’t be Ban­garra as we know it. I guess there’d be some­thing else — we’d prob­a­bly be per­form­ing dance down at Cir­cu­lar Quay.”

He winks and claps a hand over his mouth. “No, no, don’t say that!”

De­spite tes­ti­fy­ing to the pres­ence of “quite a bit of pol­i­tics and ten­sion at that time,” John­son, for her part, bears no ill-will; she says she is “pro­foundly proud to be part of this legacy ... The work of the founders of the in­cor­po­rated body that we named Ban­garra and es­pe­cially

that of Robin Bryant, Ch­eryl Stone, Ber­nadette Wa­long and Djaka­purra laid the firm foun­da­tion for it to be­come one of Aus­tralia’s na­tional com­pa­nies. Stephen Page car­ried the vi­sion and bur­den … to nur­ture and de­velop Ban­garra’s strong artis­tic di­rec­tion. He’s done a won­der­ful job.”

Ban­garra was ini­tially run out of Stone’s liv­ing room. David Page fondly re­calls those early days of do­ing ev­ery­thing from hand sewing cos­tumes and com­pos­ing to “driv­ing the bus and chang­ing light bulbs”. In late 1991, Stephen Page, a mouthy, po­lit­i­cally fired up, cock­ily tal­ented AIDT grad­u­ate, dancer and ris­ing chore­og­ra­pher from a large work­ing-class Bris­bane clan, was ap­pointed Ban­garra’s artis­tic di­rec­tor, join­ing broth­ers Rus­sell and David at the com­pany. Stephen notes prag­mat­i­cally that “po­lit­i­cally, Ch­eryl saw that an indige­nous per­son would be more at­trac­tive, I sup­pose, in terms of find­ing fund­ing and all those other is­sues”. John­son, how­ever, had deep reser­va­tions: “I think she thought I was way too con­fi­dent. That would scare any­body, re­ally, es­pe­cially if you have the legacy of run­ning a col­lege since the 70s and you’re about to have a pro­fes­sional arm and this 24-year-old comes in. You think, ‘Is he the right guy?”’

From the start Page had big dreams for the com­pany. In an early chat about Ban­garra’s iden­tity, “Ch­eryl said, OK, we are indige­nous, that’s unique enough, now how se­ri­ous and pro­fes­sional should we be and Stephen said — ‘very se­ri­ous; let’s dive straight into deep wa­ter with a ma­jor per­for­mance,’” David re­calls. This was 1992’s Pray­ing Man­tis Dream­ing, crafted at their new home base at the Po­lice Boys’ Club in Red­fern (“we’d have to leave at 3.30pm when all the judo kids and bal­let kids ar­rived,” David re­calls) and fea­tur­ing the daz­zling mix of Rus­sell dancing, Stephen di­rect­ing and chore­ograph­ing, and David com­pos­ing. It launched Ban­garra — and the “rock star” Page boys — on to the pub­lic radar; Neil Arm­field re­counts how struck he was by Stephen Page’s “sense of des­tiny” at their first meet­ing in New­town in the 90s when “both of us were be­gin­ning our big life’s work with our artis­tic direc­tor­ships”: he com­pares Page’s early brio and am­bi­tion to the un­stop­pable self-con­fi­dence of then Belvoir board mem­ber Baz Luhrmann.

Decades later, Ban­garra watch­ers still re­call the com­pany’s ex­plo­sive ar­rival on the Aus­tralian arts scene, the start of a wave of indige­nous po­lit­i­cal and artis­tic cre­ativ­ity that had been given fresh mo­men­tum by the Bi­cen­te­nary protests. For­mer Ban­garra chair­man Aden Ridge­way lived around the cor­ner and “I would of­ten walk past and stick my head in; I knew that they were there and were do­ing these won­der­ful things”: NAISDA ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Kim Walker saw the com­pany’s rise as “a real com­ing of age of con­tem­po­rary indige­nous dance”.

Arm­field says Ban­garra drew on “a kind of in­spired en­ergy com­ing from indige­nous arts. At the same time, there was Keat­ing’s Red­fern speech, and this sense of this great un­ac­knowl­edged lie of terra nul­lius that had sat un­der­neath Aus­tralia fi­nally be­ing ad­dressed. In the mid-1990s there was this feel­ing of a lid be­ing blown off, and Ban­garra came in and showed the coun­try how to do it. I think we were in­stantly aware of the po­ten­tial and depth and di­men­sion of what there was to learn from this highly evolved an­cient cul­ture that was so deep and sexy and thrilling, and right in the mid­dle of the city.”

There were early grow­ing pains, of course. Ridge­way says the com­pany, like Yothu Yindi, ini­tially strug­gled to find its niche in Aus­tralia’s cul­tural scene (were they uniquely Aus­tralian or a kind of “world mu­sic” ex­ot­ica?); also, as Ban­garra went through a “real growth spurt” in the 90s, Stephen Page and some board mem­bers ag­o­nised about commercial ex­pan­sion due to “real fears” that this could po­ten­tially sever ties with vi­tal cul­tural elders such as north­east Arn­hem Land’s Mun­n­yarryun and Marika fam­i­lies. But the “huge gam­ble” paid off, with 1995’s

Ochres es­tab­lish­ing the com­pany’s sig­na­ture dance vo­cab­u­lary, fus­ing con­tem­po­rary and indige­nous dance styles, fol­lowed by other com­pany land­marks, rang­ing from Bush (a heal­ing work af­ter youngest brother Rus­sell’s tragic 2002 sui­cide), Boomerang, and Rites with the Aus­tralian Bal­let, to the 1000-strong Awaken-

ings seg­ment in the Syd­ney Olympics open­ing cer­e­mony, Frances Rings’ Unaipon, and the award-win­ning Mathinna.

Ob­servers de­scribe it nowa­days as a tightly run ship, a slightly bat­tered but tri­umphant sur­vivor of some­times bit­ter in­ternecine cul­tural pol­i­tics, and, says NAISDA’s Ray­mond Blanco, “the er­ratic na­ture of arts fund­ing in Aus­tralia”. Though there is much spec­u­la­tion over suc­ces­sion (have the Pages stayed too long, some crit­ics ask), its in­ter­nal cli­mate and cul­ture re­main very much shaped by the broth­ers, a “very funny” pair of “great dancers, great comics, and fan­tas­tic sto­ry­tellers and im­i­ta­tors,” says Perkins (though Stephen, says Behrendt, tends to more se­ri­ous and re­flec­tive than the “ir­rev­er­ent and cheeky” David).

Shep­pard says Stephen is “in­cred­i­bly cre­ative. Work­ing with him is akin to tak­ing a ride in­side his work­ing mind.” He can be blunt and di­rect, will tell you if you’re not cut­ting it and should try other things, says Waan­genga Blanco. But al­ways there is that strong fa­ther fig­ure sen­si­bil­ity, the glue that holds Ban­garra’s di­verse young tribe to­gether: for many of them, Blanco says, Ban­garra is “the rea­son we get out of bed in the morn­ing.”

Behrendt hails Page’s “amaz­ing stamina: it is in­cred­i­ble to see the cal­i­bre of work he con­sis­tently churns out, and there is ab­so­lutely no sign of him slow­ing down”. But the man him­self, you sense, is not feel­ing as gung-ho. He looks fa­tigued at close quar­ters, af­flicted with a cer­tain psy­chic strain: Page would be the first to tes­tify that his ten­ure as artis­tic di­rec­tor has been a tough jug­gle of re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and obli­ga­tions, of walk­ing a dif­fi­cult line be­tween black and white, ur­ban and re­mote.

“It’s hard be­ing the sole na­tional torch­bearer for so long be­cause you end up be­ing taken ad­van­tage off, be­cause you’re the only ma­jor indige­nous per­form­ing arts com­pany and so people get lazy around the thought of that, they say, oh it’s just Ban­garra. There can be a dis­re­spect to- wards the com­pany so it’s hard to keep the flame alive.”

He’s had to be a “cul­tural shield, as well as put a shield around him­self,” notes Perkins. Even in a crowded room, “he comes across some­times as a lonely man,” says Ridge­way, who tes­ti­fies to the “cre­ative re­sent­ment and jeal­ousy” he at­tracts from cer­tain quar­ters. Arm­field points to flak Page en­coun­tered from cer­tain quar­ters of the indige­nous com­mu­nity in tak­ing on the role of artis­tic as­so­ciate for the STC’s The Se­cret River: “I think Stephen was al­ways trou­bled by some of the voices he had to an­swer to, but at the same time he was able to judge the im­por­tance of the story on his own terms.”

It is no se­cret that for all its le­gions of ad­mir­ers, Ban­garra has plenty of crit­ics, tar­get­ing ev­ery­thing from a per­ceived lack of cul­tural au­then­tic­ity, to an “overused” and un­vary­ing style and mu­si­cal­ity. Af­ter a “very clever, sharp, fresh start” in the early years, it has stag­nated some­what due to over­re­liance on a nar­row pool of tra­di­tional cul­tural sources, be­lieves dance critic Lee Christofis, who ad­mires the com­pany but ar­gues it should not only look more widely across and out­side Aus­tralia for cul­tural in­spi­ra­tion but also ex­pand its sub­ject mat­ter: “the broader ques­tion is does Ban­garra al­ways need to draw on tra­di­tional ma­te­rial in or­der to cre­ate good work?” The Aus­tralian’s dance critic Deb­o­rah Jones says Ban­garra “is in the dif­fi­cult po­si­tion of work­ing as a con­tem­po­rary dance com­pany with its ba­sis in tra­di­tional, very an­cient, and of­ten highly sen­si­tive sto­ries. That means it can be mis­un­der­stood on both sides. It may be not pure enough for those for whom dance con­tains sa­cred ma­te­rial and is not done for en­ter­tain­ment, and it can be seen as not au­then­tic enough by those who want to see Ban­garra as a kind of folkloric com­pany.”

To those who claim it pro­duces slickly “Dis­ney­fied” ver­sions of indige­nous cul­ture on stage, NAISDA’S Blanco says “once you take tra­di­tional/cul­tural dance out of coun­try then you con­tem­po­rise it. Sim­ple. Con­tem­po­rary Abo­rig­i­nal dance can only give a very small in­sight into cul­tural prac­tice and should never be seen as rep­re­sen­ta­tive of cul­tural prac­tice in a tra­di­tional com­mu­nity ... Yes, Ban­garra’s pro­duc­tions are glossy but are of high-pro­duc­tion qual­ity. I would imag­ine that Stephen would say this is what has been re­quired to ed­u­cate non­indige­nous au­di­ences to the qual­ity and rich­ness of Abo­rig­i­nal cul­tures.”

As to the crit­i­cisms about Ban­garra’s ap­proach to cul­tural pro­to­cols and the use of highly sen­si­tive tra­di­tional ma­te­rial (do sa­cred, frag­ile cer­e­mo­nial rit­u­als “lose their souls” when they’re taken out of con­text, not staged with the right cos­tumes or songs or set­tings for ex­am­ple, and per­formed in the commercial sphere?) David Page points out firmly that noth­ing is done with­out the full per­mis­sion of Ban­garra’s long-term cul­tural cus­to­di­ans, pri­mar­ily the Mun­yarryun and Marika fam­i­lies of north­east Arn­hem Land: there is a web of trusted con­nec­tions forged by long years of cre­ative in­put and cul­tural ex­changes. With­out this “well source”, there is no Ban­garra. “Some people go, ‘you can’t use it’. But these elders will let you know what you can and can’t use. They have a group of songs, and they say, ‘here, you can use these be­cause they’re chil­dren’s songs. They’re safe, they’re in­no­cent. But these are cer­e­mo­nial songs, so no.’ It’s black and white.”

What will hap­pen when the Djaka­purras and Kathy Marikas are no longer around as cul­tural con­sul­tants and touch­stones? Says Stephen Page: “We’re as­sess­ing that at the mo­ment. They have a love and pas­sion for the com­pany but they have their own im­me­di­ate fam­i­lies, their own things to do back home. They want to keep the gen­er­a­tional con­tact with Ban­garra — Djaka­purra is work­ing with me on a fea­ture film I’m do­ing and he wants to keep that con­nec­tion

Con­tin­ued on Page 6

Ban­garra com­pany di­rec­tors David, left, and Stephen Page with lead dancer Jas­min Shep­pard, op­po­site page; in re­hearsals, top, for

Patye­garang; Shep­pard and Thomas Green­field, left; indige­nous dance pioneer Ca­role John­son, above

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