Dancing between two worlds
LIKE many of us, Beau Dean Riley Smith had heard of Woollarawarre Bennelong, after whom Bennelong Point on which the Sydney Opera House stands is named, but didn’t know a great deal about him, until now.
Riley Smith is about to play the title role in Bennelong, a new, full-length piece created for Bangarra Dance Theatre by artistic director Stephen Page with the dancers.
A Wiradjuri man, born in Dubbo, Riley Smith joined Bangarra in 2013. Bennelong is his first lead role. Determined “to do him justice as a person and as a figure”, he has been immersing himself in all the research he can find.
Bennelong’s story is fascinating. He was a senior man of the Wangal tribe of the Eora Nation. In 1789, he was captured and brought into the settlement at Sydney Cove by order of Governor Phillip who wanted to learn as much as possible about the indigenous Australians.
Bennelong learned English quickly and forged a close friendship with Phillip, who had a brick hut built for him on what is now known as Bennelong Point.
In 1792, Phillip took Bennelong to London. Returning three years later, he found himself with a foot in both worlds but not fully accepted by either and died of alcoholic poisoning in 1813.
“Figuring out who he really was is actually quite hard. There are notes about him in the first settlement (accounts) but some of them are quite sterile, more just facts. What we are trying to do with this work is to find out what his spirit is like and who he was as a person,” says Riley Smith.
“There are accounts where people say he’s quite fiery and energetic and mischievous, that he can go from one extreme to the other. I think he was a good mimic and that’s why Governor Phillip chose him to be that first guinea pig for assimilation.
“Some people think he was a conformist and gave up (to colonisation) but I think he was really smart. I think he was using the abuser in a way. He had to be intelligent because he was the leader of his clan. You can’t have that kind of responsibility and then all of a sudden conform to Western systems.”
Though the Bangarra work follows Bennelong’s life chronologically, Riley Smith says that it is “quite abstract in its form”.
“I think it has to be because there are so many different accounts, and you are trying to condense 25 years into a 70-minute work. Even though there is a narrative in some sections, other sections are based on spirit or feeling or emotion,” he says.
The dancers have worked closely with Page to create the new piece.
“I think Stephen is quite smart to collaborate with the dancers and inform them as much as possible,” says Riley Smith. “The more that we know as artists, the more we can feed his storytelling and his vision.”
BENNELONG, SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE, JUNE 29— JULY 29. BOOK: 9250 7777
Beau Dean Riley Smith will dance the role of Bennelong.