No single individual defines the clash of cultures that occurred at Sydney Cove in 1788 quite like Woollarawarre Bennelong, the Eora man who became an intermediary between his clan and the colonial forces of Captain Arthur Phillip. Perhaps that explains why Stephen Page has waited 28 years before asking Bangarra to engage with this seminal tale of first contact. Dauntingly iconic, profoundly sad, Bennelong is beautifully realised by a sensitive and experienced creative team, a phalanx of dancers at the top of their game, and features a career-defining central performance of enormous strength and grace from Beau Dean Riley Smith.

Beau Dean Riley Smith and Bangarra dancers in Bennelong. Photo © Daniel Boud

As Jacob Nash’s smouldering disc hangs balefully over a blackened landscape, the earth itself, divided into the traditional Aboriginal groupings of male and female, appears to give birth to Bennelong. With something of the implacable weight of Greek drama, the warrior is cleansed for battle, whether he be hero or scapegoat is yet to be seen. In these early sequences of custom and convention, Page’s choreography taps into elements of his signature Bangarra style, the men leggy and strutting, the women bent more towards the earth. But as the work progresses, so Page’s language develops into something more fluid and malleable, the dancers embracing the opportunities provided by this more open-ended style of physical storytelling.

In fact, everything about Bennelong suggests a company moving on, flexing its choreographic muscles and taking flight into regions as yet unexplored. It’s perhaps this aspect of the work that is most exciting here, and Page’s vision is beautifully supported by Nash’s strikingly simple, yet effective designs with their descending set pieces. Meanwhile, Jennifer Irwin’s intensely natural costumes veer off into fantastical realms once the colonial forces hove into view, and Nick Schlieper’s dramatically involving lighting  manages seamless shifts from intimate to epic while bringing a painterly insight to bear on Nash and Irwin’s individual images.

Another achievement is Steve Francis’s finely-crafted music. Embracing the past, through a mixture of atmospheric soundscapes and the plangent, very human voice of Matthew Doyle, it also reflects the future through its use of electronics and driving rythms. Athough the influence of David Page can be sensed behind some of the beats, Francis is very much his own man. He also incorporates the spoken word – another useful tool to help follow the narrative – as well as the odd folk song, sea shanty, and even Haydn’s witty Surprise Symphony for the visit to England – and let’s face it, Bennelong must have given the London set quite a surprise.

Bangarra dancers in Bennelong. Photo © Daniel Boud

Essentially a narrative dance work, Bennelong has been thoughtfully dramaturged by Page and Alana Valentine to tell its tale cleanly and clearly, especially considering that for all of his posthumous fame, there is still a great deal that remains mysterious about the Wongal man who sports five variant names and is associated with three partners, the most famous being Barangaroo. The great tragedies of the times, and especially the decimation of his clan by smallpox, are played out in poignant, frequently agonising sequences, dancers stretching, splaying and twisting to convey the inner disease as much as the external distress.

Page is particularly strong when it comes to the cultural clash and the visit of Bennelong and his fellow Eora man Yemmerawanye to England (where the latter was to die and be buried in Eltham, now a suburb of south east London). The arrival of the joyless convicts and their haughty lord brings a fierce dynamism to the choreography, while the magnetic attraction between Phillips and Bennelong results in some compelling displays of curiosity through movement as the two men snuff each other’s scents in a penetratingly primal exhibition of conflicting masculinity. The moment when Yemmerawanye’s body is casually dragged off stage on the train of some absent-minded countess is a cruel reminder of the transience of novelty.

So strong is the company work throughout, it seems invidious to single dancers out, but Elma Kris is unforgettable as the Spirit of the Land, presiding over Bennelong’s story for good or ill. A powerful presence (as she was in last year’s unforgetable Nyapanyapa), she exudes dramatic influence and combines the harshness of nature with a benign warmth. Daniel Riley is equally powerful as Captain Arthur Phillip, both fascinated and threatened by the men of the Eora, his dancerly athleticism conveying the autocratic authority and ultimate failure of a man who never realises his capacity to make an all-important difference to the events in which he is involved.

At the heart of it all, though, is Riley Smith’s Bennelong, in a performance that commands attention and comprises equal measures of personality, poise, stamina and sheer dramatic clout. An actor of no mean ability, Riley Smith doesn’t just dance Bennelong, he is Bennelong, imbuing the character with a humanity that transcends issues of culture to embrace the epic and timeless. Again and again, you are drawn to the man’s face and eyes, his every fibre expressing the dilemma of this brave, intruiged, challenged and ultimately defeated man.

The final sequence following Bennelong’s return from England, is a triumph for both Page and Riley Smith. Unable to fit back into his old world, Bennelong is an outsider from either nation and his struggles to assimilate with either – including a painful sequence where he turns on one of his wives – is pitiful to watch. The final scene exposes a lost soul shut up brick by brick in a representation of the hut that the English built for him at Bennelong point – possibly on the very spot where the show is being danced today. Powerful and painful, Bennelong represents the very best of dance – Aboriginal or otherwise – to be found in Australia today.


Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Bennelong is at Sydney Opera House until July 29, before it tours to Canberra, Brisbane and Melbourne.

Tickets