Bangarra dancers celebrate Abo­rig­i­nal cul­ture


Deb­o­rah Brown has danced at the Syd­ney Opera House and on other fa­mous stages around the world, but per­for­mances on the dirt of re­mote Aus­tralian Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ties are her most nervewrack­ing.

It is these stripped back Out­back dances which can be the most beau­ti­ful, says Brown, a chore­og­ra­pher and dancer with the ac­claimed Bangarra Dance Theatre, which is inspired by Aus­tralia’s an­cient in­dige­nous cul­ture.

“It can be just head­lights of the car and the dirt and we do a per­for­mance,” Brown, a de­scen­dant of the Wakaid clan from the Tor­res Strait is­lands in Aus­tralia’s north, tells AFP.

“They’ve done creek beds ... we built our own set on Mur­ray Is­land (in the Tor­res Strait). It’s this DIY stage you set up in the com­mu­ni­ties and ev­ery­body comes around and you sit down un­der the stars and there’s noth­ing that you can com­pare it to.”

It is this strong con­nec­tion with the land and cul­ture which inspires Bangarra, an Abo­rig­i­nal and Tor­res Strait Is­lan­der or­ga­ni­za­tion that is one of Aus­tralia’s lead­ing per­form­ing arts com­pa­nies, widely ac­claimed for its dis­tinc­tive the­atri­cal voice.

For dancers like Brown, who first joined the group in 2003, giv­ing back to an in­dige­nous com­mu­nity by per­form­ing the dances which they inspired, with more con­tem­po­rary move­ment, is worth the nerves.

“The scari­est au­di­ences for me have al­ways been go­ing back to coun­try, be­cause you are tak­ing their songs and dance and you are tak­ing their style,” she says.

“And there is this fear that you bas­tardized it. It’s like, ‘I hope we haven’t ru­ined it, I hope we haven’t com­mer­cial­ized it.’”

But, she says, as soon as the com­mu­nity rec­og­nizes their work, there is an im­me­di­ate sense of joy.

“So sud­denly there is a def­i­nite con­nec­tion.”

Bangarra has worked to nur­ture these cul­tural con­nec­tions with of­ten re­mote in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties which are the pri­mary in­spi­ra­tion for all of the sto­ries the group brings to life in dance.

“It’s lovely to see a com­pany like Bangarra, which goes from the main stages around the coun­try and the world in­ter­na­tion­ally on their tours, to take the time to give back to the com­mu­ni­ties that they have drawn their in­spi­ra­tion from,” says Libby Collins, the group’s se­nior com­mu­nity man­ager.

This en­gage­ment stretches from free com­mu­nity shows to youth pro­grams, com­mu­nity nights at the Syd­ney Opera House, and a ro­bust tour­ing sched­ule around the vast coun­try.

With its “Rekin­dling” pro­gram, Bangarra brings to­gether highschool stu­dents from in­dige­nous back­grounds and com­mu­nity el­ders to ex­plore their her­itage, ex­change sto­ries and de­velop cre­atively.

Re­ally Mag­i­cal

Collins says dance works as a means of con­nect­ing young and old be­cause “it is so in­her­ent in our cul­ture.”

“It’s a way of ex­press­ing our­selves. It’s a way of telling peo­ple where you’re from. It’s a sig­na­ture of our cul­tures in­di­vid­u­ally as well as col­lec­tively,” she says.

This makes it the ideal ve­hi­cle to ex­pose Abo­rig­i­nal cul­ture to main­stream so­ci­ety as well — with Bangarra bring­ing a con­tem­po­rary twist to an an­cient form.

“Be­cause it’s such an ex­pres­sion of who we are and the sto­ries that we tell, I think dance is in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant as a tool,” Collins says.

Bangarra’s artis­tic di­rec­tor Stephen Page says peo­ple are end­lessly fas­ci­nated by in­dige­nous cul­ture and how it has evolved.

And while 25 years might be a long time for a com­pany to sur­vive in mod­ern Western so­ci­ety, it is noth­ing com­pared to a cul­ture which is tens of thou­sands of years old.

“We in­herit ... such old knowl­edge. And we are so proud as a con­tem­po­rary clan to pay honor and pay re­spect and ac­knowl­edge that, and if we can keep draw­ing and be­ing inspired I am sure we can last another 25 years,” says Page.

Dancers like Brown still feel that in­spi­ra­tion and pride, even when the Out­back dirt hurts her feet, which are more at­tuned to mod­ern stages.

“But I don’t care. I want to do this be­cause I want to be this con­nected,” she says. “It’s re­ally mag­i­cal.”


Pic­tures taken on June 10 shows dancers from Aus­tralia’s Bangarra Dance Theatre per­form parts of their cur­rent show “Lore” in Syd­ney.

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