Danc­ing be­tween two worlds

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - - INSIDER - JO LITSON ARTS WRITER [email protected]­POND.COM

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.”


Pic­ture: Bri­anne Makin

Beau Dean Ri­ley Smith will dance the role of Ben­ne­long.

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