★★★★☆ Kinship and art transcend pain and loss in diverse dance triptych.

Playhouse, Sydney Opera House
June 18, 2016

The tragic and sudden death in April of composer David Page left the whole of the Australian arts scene reeling, but especially Bangarra Dance Theatre, whose identity and sound he had helped to forge over 25 years. A proud descendant of the Nunukul people and the Munuldjali clan of the Yugambeh from South East Queensland, kinship mattered to David, as it does for the whole of Bangarra who are still learning to come to terms with the loss of their songman. It seems appropriate then that the first work they have had to complete without him should touch so keenly on bereavement, family and, most importantly, on identity, tradition, hope and singleness of vision.

Bangarra Ensemble in Nyapanyapa. Photo by Jhuny Boy-Borja

In OUR land people stories, four choreographers have come together to create three very different works. The first, Macq, is an uncompromising exploration of Governor Lachlan Macquarie, a figure often held up by white Australians for his open-minded dealings with Aboriginal tribes, yet who in 1816 ordered the brutal massacre of more than a dozen of the D’harawal people of Appin in New South Wales. Bangarra dancer Jasmin Sheppard, who notably created the lead role in 2014’s impressive Patyegarang, has elaborated on her original 2013 collaboration with David Page to create an eclectic 25-minute dance drama.

The work opens in semi-darkness with a rushing electronic sound of insects and a woman keening over a corpse, her agonised contortions transcending any notions of culture. Then, in a bold dramaturgical gesture, we are catapulted into the midst of a grotesque version of one of the annual Durbur picnics that Macquarie would hold for the ‘natives’ at Paramatta. Daniel Riley’s magnetic Governor presides over a maniacal carnival of eccentricities (not unlike his overseas master, mad King George), glaring from one end of the tea table at Beau Dean Riley Smith, sole representative of a race one feels is being weighed in the balance. Bodies tumble up, over, and even under the table in a scene worthy of Lewis Carroll. As the sinister soldiery in red coats and balaclavas muster like storm clouds, Macquarie (or perhaps his dark spirit) dances a psychotic dance of death. Scribbling furiously in the diary we hear read out over the tannoy, he tells of his chilling intentions to “chastise these hostile tribes” and even display their bodies to deter others. When it happens, the massacre is simple and dignified. The final moments of Macq are punctuated by the smell of incense burned in a traditional coolamon, an image, perhaps, of hope for two cultures.

Bangarra Ensemble in Macq. Photo by Wendell Teodoro

By a neat coincidence, the second work has been created by the two protagonists of Macq. Daniel Riley and Beau Dean Riley Smith only discovered that they were cousins after meeting within Bangarra. Members of the Wiradjuri nation from Western New South Wales, the pair share a common great-great-grandfather who lived on the Talbragar Reserve in Dubbo in the early 1900s. Their ambitious new work, Miyagan, is one of kinship and tradition and explores the matrilineal totemic system at the root of their heritage as taught to them by Wiradjuri elders Aunty Di and Aunty Lynn.

Bangarra Ensemble in Miyagan. Photo by Wendell Teodoro

A trio of female earth spirits transport us back in time and place where we witness processes of learning and healing. Dancers in turn-of-the-century outfits come together beneath huge, feathered branches, redolent of both nature and the tangled generations, in playful gestures representative of family, community and even courtship. Outwardly abstract, Miyagan, investigates through separate dances the division of nation (Wiradjuri) into a moiety (Dilbi and Kupathin) and then down to clan (the Wilay sporting their totemic grey possum tails), and finally family and the individual. The choreography is bold, aided by Jennifer Irwin’s fabulous costumes. If its meaning is slightly elusive (the above is a best guess, especially the possum tail bit) it’s never less than engaging and has some beautiful patternings and lifts. Matt Cox’s atmospheric lighting creates magical imagery (especially the final transcendent moment when the divisions pare down to a lone individual gazing up into the trees). One suspects too that David Page would have been proud of Paul Mac’s powerful, clubby, clap stick-infused score.

Perhaps the most potent work, however, was saved for last. Stephen Page’s Nyapanyapa is a tribute to and a celebration of the life and work of Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, a tree bark painter and Yolngu woman from the Gumjati clan in North East Arnhem Land. A bit like an Aboriginal Sunday in the Park with George without the songs, Page and designers Jacon Nash (set), Matt Cox (lighting) and Jennifer Irwin (costumes) bring a series of Nyapanyapa’s paintings to life before our eyes in a stunning and frequently moving sequence of realisations.

Bangarra Ensemble in Nyapanyapa. Photo by Jhuny Boy-Borja

Starting with her famous painting of her traumatic encounter with a wild buffalo as a young girl, Bangarra dancers engage in some nifty role play as dogs and trees, and a buffalo is portrayed with the sinister power of Theseus’ minotaur. Employing signature Bargarra high-stepping, arm twisting choreography as a starting point, Page regularly jumps off into a brave new world aided by a compelling central performance from Elma Kris as the painter herself. The sequence where she encounters the cheesy world of country town rock and roll captures the curiosity, fascination and ultimately the rejection of a young woman who has chosen resolutely to go her own way. The fusing of dance imagery with visual art repeatedly creates the frisson of recognition, while a series of trios and a gripping sextet for six men allow for some detailed and athletic choreography.

Ultimately, Nyapanyapa pulls off that rare feat where one art form genuinly illuminates another. In many respects, that is what David Page spent his life doing, so his brother’s eloquent tribute in OUR land people stories could not be more fitting.

OUR land people stories is dedicated to David Page (1961-2016) and plays the Sydney Opera House until July 9 before touring to Perth, Canberra, Brisbane and Melbourne with an international tour and regional tours of South and Western Australia.