Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
June 14, 2018
Bangarra Dance Theatre’s latest production Dark Emu draws on Bruce Pascoe’s 2014 book Dark Emu: Black Seeds, Agriculture or Accident? which explores the relationship Aboriginal people had with the land before colonial settlement. The non-fiction work provides evidence that they were not hunter-gatherers as they have been depicted but used sophisticated farming, fishing and sustainable land care, which was ignored by the settlers.
Dark Emu. Photographs © Daniel Boud
It’s a big, challenging theme to try to explore through dance – and altogether different from the company’s previous work, the hugely successful Bennelong, which had a narrative to play with. Dark Emu is by its nature a much more abstract work. Like Pascoe’s book, Bangarra’s work is divided into different segments with titles such as Ceremony of Seed, Forged by Fire, Bogong Moth Harvest, Crushed by Ignorance, and Smashed by Colonisation among many others. Without doing some background reading, however, much of it would be hard to understand (though the program does provide plenty of useful information). It is a beautiful piece to watch with some lovely, glowing group work, but it doesn’t have the same emotional force as some of the company’s most powerful productions – though the scenes in which the Indigenous people are gathered, tied up and dispossessed strikes hard and is very moving.
Dark Emu has been choreographed by three people – Artistic Director Stephen Page, senior dancer Daniel Riley, and Bangarra alumna Yolande Brown, but there isn’t the variety that you might expect. The performance style is fairly coherent across the work, and although the company used Alana Valentine as a dramaturg, structurally most of it also unfolds at a similar pace.
Set designer Jacob Nash, costume designer Jennifer Irwin and lighting designer Sian James-Holland have created a wonderful setting for the piece. Nash’s set pieces include a huge landscape painting as a backdrop, rocks, plenty of ochre, and a glowing light box among other effects, while Irwin’s costumes add lots of different textures from fluffy white outfits to woven fabrics. Steve Francis’s music combines all kinds of different effects from speaking and singing to the sounds of nature, including rain, wind and flies.
The dancing is really wonderful. In fact, the performances at Bangarra just seem to get better and better. Here, there is excellent work across the board, with Beau Dean Riley Smith in particular exuding extraordinary charisma and presence. Running 65 minutes, Dark Emu looks gorgeous and is beautifully danced, so there is much to enjoy, but it doesn’t have the structural shape and emotional passion of the company’s best productions.
Dark Emu runs at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until July 14 then tours to Canberra, July 26 – 28, Perth, August 2 – 5, Brisbane, August 24 – September 1, and Melbourne, September 6 – 15