Roy David Page died in April 2016. David as he was known, or Dubboo to his close friends, was the beloved ‘songman’ for Bangarra Dance Theatre, where he worked closely with his brother Stephen Page, the Artistic Director, and created the pioneering, distinctive scores for 27 of the company’s shows. As well as a composer he was an actor, singer and exuberant drag artist.

Introducing Dubboo – life of a songman, which honours his life, career and legacy, Michael McDaniel, the Chair of the Board, said that Bangarra had been waiting for the right time to celebrate David. The time now felt right.

The audience clearly felt so too. There was a huge buzz in the air as the audience arrived at a jam-packed Carriageworks. Two and three-quarter hours later they left having shared an intimate, moving yet cheeky look at his life that embraced his passion, vision, and mischievous spirit, with everyone on their feet at the end in a rousing standing ovation.

Dubboo – life of a songman. The dancers in Sacred from Patyegarang. Photograph © Jhuny-Boy Borja

The show was divided into two very different acts. Act 1, Dubboo: Songman, focussed primarily on his work for Bangarra, while Act 2: Showman, explored his own career as a performer from little Davy Page to drag queen Davina Cha Cha.

The evening began with Hunter Page-Lochard (Stephen’s son) delivering a beautifully simple, poetic reflection on his uncle, as an introduction to the songman. From there the first act featured the Bangarra dancers in scenes from a number of the company’s works, beginning with the dancers proceeding on stage in earthy outfits, carrying branches, for Sacred from Patyegarang (2014). Accompanied by a string quartet (Véronique Serret, Stephanie Zarka, Carl St Jacques and Paul Ghica) and singer/guitarist Brendon Boney (the current recipient of the David Page Music Fellowship), it was a beautiful, traditional start to the show.

The first act also included excerpts from Corroboree (2001), Brolga (2001), Fish (1997), Skin/Spear (2000), Bush (2003) and Ochres (1994) performed to the scores that David created (with musical direction by Iain Grandage). On a large screen, surrounded by a glittery silver curtain, stills and footage from the productions were shown simultaneously. We also saw numerous photographs of David across his life – with his family, friends and colleagues – as well as footage of him in his studio talking quietly and unassumingly about his work: how he didn’t see himself as a composer but as a songman (“I dream it and I’m good at producing it”), how he and Bangarra worked to create a bridge between traditional and urban Aboriginality, and how people like Djakapurra Munyarryun inspired him (and he them).

Djakapurra Munyarryun and dancers. Photograph © Jhuny-Boy Borja

Munyarryun was on stage with the musicians, and sang several songs in language, while Ursula Yovich (seen in some wonderful footage with David talking about the creation of a new score), sang a deeply personal tribute to him. Archie Roach also sang two tracks from Skin/Spear, while David’s own voice was heard on some of the tracks. All of it incredibly moving.

With dance scenes ranging from the dark alienation of the men in Skin/Spear including a heart-rending, agonised solo performed by Beau Dean Riley Smith, to the sensual Lust from Brolga performed by Waangenga Blanco and Tara Robertson, to the beauty of White Ochre Dreaming, it was a rich journey through the Bangarra world, taken at a gentle pace that allowed for plenty of contemplation on David’s remarkable input and vision.

Then after a short interval, Act 2, Dubboo: Showman turned the pace around. Performed on a raised circular stage, Page-Lochard donned drag and joined drag queen Miss Ellaneous (the drag alter ego of Ben Graetz) to get things going, immediately changing the mood and tempo. On-screen footage traced David’s own performance career with footage of him on television as Davy Page, and stills and video from various films and stage plays in which he performed.

Scenes from his autobiographical solo play Page 8, which he co-wrote with Louis Nowra, were regularly intercut so that we watched him tell much of his own story, from his sisters dressing him up in their clothes when he was a child, to finding himself and coming out at age 15, to his work as a drag star.

The Bangarra dancers recreated the Countdown Top Five on the week when Davy Page was number one, and donned drag, shaking their groove thing to various disco songs, while we watched David himself strutting his stuff on screen. It was joyous, ebullient fun, with some fabulously camp, period costuming (Jennifer Irwin).

Hunter Page-Lochard in Act of Dubboo – life of a songman. Photograph © Jhuny-Boy Borja

The integration of live performance with the onscreen images and footage was superbly, sensitively done throughout – all power to everyone involved including stage director Peter Sutherland, dramaturg Alana Valentine, AV content designer Tiffany Parker, and many others.

The second act could probably have been tightened a bit. There was a spot when David himself said goodbye on a radio microphone that felt like a natural ending. It could have gone straight from there into the final number Proud Mary (fabulously done with David performing to the nines on screen and all the Bangarra dancers in short gold frocks on stage), but instead there were several other camp vignettes, including a tribute to The Rocky Horror Show, in between.

But who cares? It was a stunning night. Huge amounts of love, care and thought had clearly gone into creating a night that did great justice to a great artist: honouring a complex man of many guises.

Dubboo – life of a songman runs at Carriageworks until December 8