As Ban­garra ex­plores the com­plex life of Ben­ne­long, Stephen Page and his com­pany are still com­ing to terms with per­sonal tragedy, writes Sharon Verghis

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

‘This last cen­tury has been lack­ing in spirit,” de­clares Stephen Page. “We’ve im­mersed our­selves in power and own­er­ship and want­ing to un­der­stand, but hu­mans have not left a place for the en­vi­ron­ment and the sea­sons, the spirit — things be­yond hu­man con­trol.”

Which ex­plains why, he says, we’re all now “try­ing to re­con­nect back to spir­i­tu­al­ity … it’s like, ‘Oh my god, we should have lis­tened to the First Na­tions’ science from 150 years ago, we would have treated the land bet­ter’ … in­dige­nous cul­ture is about sur­vival and the re­la­tion­ship with the land and en­vi­ron­ment, and [that is now in fo­cus]. But it’s like we’re go­ing around in cir­cles.”

The artis­tic di­rec­tor of Ban­garra Dance Theatre has plenty more on his mind this morn­ing. In his sights? Ev­ery­thing from the fragility of lan­guage and its im­por­tance to in­dige­nous iden­tity, to the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of the in­dige­nous oral sto­ry­telling tra­di­tion, and the pol­i­tics of his­tory and who writes it.

It is more im­por­tant than ever, says Page, 52, peer­ing out from un­der the brim of his blue base­ball hat, for First Na­tions peo­ple all around the world to add their voices to how we frame our sto­ries of our­selves.

His­tory is a slip­pery, po­lit­i­cal beast. Who is the fi­nal ar­biter: the his­to­rian or the kid with the cam­era doc­u­ment­ing self­ies and life on the streets?

It’s a ques­tion that takes on re­newed im­por­tance at a time of a heated de­bate about race, be­long­ing and iden­tity. And the past, and how we frame it, is cer­tainly oc­cu­py­ing Page’s thoughts.

In a small room at the com­pany’s Walsh Bay head­quar­ters, framed by a paint­ing of one longdead brother and his mind filled with thoughts of an­other re­cently passed, he poses a ques­tion: How do we know that his­tor­i­cal ac­counts of black Aus­tralia are ac­cu­rate? How much of what we know from school his­tory books is clouded by cul­tural bias and “stereo­types of sav­ages”?

Page has been newly en­er­gised by this ques­tion in his 24th work for Ban­garra, ti­tled Ben­ne­long. It tells the tale of the savvy Eora na­tion in­ter­me­di­ary, cul­tural bridge builder and diplo­mat Wool­larawarre Ben­ne­long — a se­nior Wan­gal man who would go on to be­come part of Aus­tralia’s his­tor­i­cal iconog­ra­phy.

We know — or think we do — the bones of Ben­ne­long’s ex­tra­or­di­nary story: re­port­edly the first Abo­rig­i­nal man to be in­tro­duced to Euro­pean ways, the first Abo­rig­i­nal au­thor, the first to sail to Europe, the first to learn English.

All we know comes from what we have learned in school his­tory books or “for­mal his­to­ri­ans’ ac­counts”, Page says. But is Ben­ne­long who we think he is? What about in­dige­nous Aus­tralia — do we re­ally know the truth of first con­tact, the rich com­plex­ity of in­dige­nous life at the time?

Maybe we don’t, Page says bluntly. The sub­jec­tiv­ity of writ­ten ac­counts — by his­tory’s vic­tors — is fur­ther clouded by cul­tural bias. It raises ques­tions, not least in the con­text of Ben­ne­long.

To Page, no one has own­er­ship over the man who re­mains such a cen­tral fig­ure in Aus­tralian his­tory: not academia, where he is cel­e­brated as an in­valu­able con­duit to the past — from lan­guage to geog­ra­phy to cul­tural mores at the time of first con­tact — nor the pub­lic, where he re­mains a cosy archetype of the no­ble sav­age more com­monly as­so­ci­ated with a ge­o­graph­i­cal land­mark and a gl­itzy water­front restau­rant than as the fa­ther of Aus­tralian in­dige­nous ac­tivism.

Com­pli­cat­ing the pic­ture fur­ther, Page says, is the fact Ben­ne­long re­mains pe­riph­eral among in­dige­nous Aus­tralia: “It’s funny be­cause a lot of blacks in Syd­ney don’t talk of him.”

Syd­ney’s ur­ban in­dige­nous groups have prob­a­bly the clos­est ties: “Among the Gadi­gal peo­ple, the Wan­gal peo­ple, the Dharug, the Dharawal, he will al­ways be part of their re­con­nect­ing … to a land­scape of chal­lenges and mas­sacres, grounds and sites and burial grounds.” But for many black Aus­tralians, he was con­sid­ered a sell­out — an ap­peaser com­pared with the de­fi­ant war­rior Pemul­wuy. “A lot of blacks think, ‘Oh he was for the white man.’ ” Page doesn’t buy this di­chotomy. “How do we know that Ben­ne­long didn’t dis­cuss with Baranga­roo, ‘Look, I’m go­ing to try it out, this is my way, I’m a leader. I’m go­ing to try to get rid of him [Cap­tain Arthur Phillip]. I’m go­ing to mimic and go and check out their land.’ ” Ben­ne­long, he be­lieves, is also a vic­tim of wider cul­tural dis­re­spect in the Western world when it comes to in­dige­nous knowl­edge and wis­dom. How do we know, Page asks, that he hadn’t trav­elled the seas be­fore his voy­age to London in 1792, or com­mu­ni­cated with other in­dige­nous groups around the na­tion? Cer­tainly, he was no milk­sop, go­ing by Watkin Tench’s A Com­plete Ac­count of the Set­tle­ment at Port Jack­son. Ben­ne­long, Tench wrote, had a “bold in­trepid coun­te­nance which be­spoke de­fi­ance and re­venge”. Page says: “It’s so sad, this thing about stereo­types and sav­ages … we au­to­mat­i­cally think there isn’t in­tel­li­gence there, es­pe­cially when you think of all of them, Baranga­roo and Pemul­wuy and Ben­ne­long, all these other in­cred­i­ble en­er­gies … “Ben­ne­long was roughly 25 when he met Phillip and he died at 49, so he lived a gen­er­a­tion, and in those 25 years, he was cap­tured, he thought he would play the game, he re­sponded to and be­friended Phillip, he learned to write be­cause he was watch­ing Phillip, he was one of the first [Abo­rig­i­nal] peo­ple to speak English … he sur­vived small­pox, had the scar­ring to prove it, and then that long trip to London.”

Courage — a dif­fer­ent kind to Pemul­wuy’s, per­haps — was there in spades, Page says.

In his own take on Ben­ne­long’s life, he hopes to bring the man out from un­der ac­creted lay­ers of myth and stereo­types.

He also wants to shine a light on how vi­tal it is for in­dige­nous Aus­tralia to con­tinue to tell sto­ries of our shared past — he cites the work of a new young gen­er­a­tion of sto­ry­tellers such as Ban­garra’s Jas­mine Shep­pard, cre­ator of the ac­claimed Macq, an un­flinch­ing look at gover­nor Lach­lan Mac­quarie and the 1816 mas­sacre of the Dharawal peo­ple.

White men’s ac­counts have long shaped the past, he says. But now all over the world, he says, First Na­tions peo­ple are lay­ing claim to their own past and sto­ries.

Ben­ne­long first popped up on Page’s cre­ative radar when he was mak­ing Patye­garang. He emerged again when Page was in a meet­ing with Louise Her­ron, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Opera House. In her of­fice was a paint­ing of Ben­ne­long in var­i­ous guises: in colo­nial uni­form, at Gov­ern­ment House. “I said, ‘Is that Ben­ne­long?’ and she said, ‘Yes, maybe he should be your next work.’ ”

For Page, it was as if a strange win­dow in time had sud­denly opened, past and present ac­cor­dion­ing. “Here I was, sit­ting there — was I Ben­ne­long, and Louise, a white woman, was she Phillip?” It’s a historic par­al­lel he is keen to ex­plore in the new work. As he says, af­ter 200 years, who are the con­tem­po­rary Ben­ne­longs? “Am I Ben­ne­long? Is Wes­ley Enoch Ben­ne­long? Leah Pur­cell? Larissa Behrendt?”

There’s Ben­ne­long in all of in­dige­nous Aus­tralia, ul­ti­mately, he says, a hard ker­nel of adapt­abil­ity, a chameleon sur­vival in­stinct fa­cil­i­tat­ing the nec­es­sary move­ment be­tween Western and in­dige­nous worlds.

For his own por­trait of Ben­ne­long, Page re­ferred to eclec­tic sources rang­ing from Tench’s ac­counts and Wil­liam Dawes’s di­aries to Inga Clendin­nen’s 2005 Dancers with Strangers, his­to­rian Kevin Vin­cent Smith’s 2001 work Ben­ne­long, and Kate Grenville’s The Se­cret River. He

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