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