This dance company is keeping ancient Indigenous knowledge alive and well in the 21st century
Bangarra Dance Theatre marks 30 years with digital archive and exhibition
Updated December 13, 2019 20:39:43
In October 1989, Australia’s premiere Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance company was born around a kitchen table in the Sydney suburb of Glebe.
The kitchen belonged to South-African born Cheryl Stone, a founding student of the National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association (NAISDA).
Stone, along with Gumbaynggirr man and NAISDA graduate Rob Bryant, and African-American modern dancer and NAISDA founder Carole J. Johnson, established Bangarra Dance Theatre.
The company was forged from a dream to create a world-class dance company that provided "opportunities for Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists to explore, express and present the identity of Australia’s Indigenous cultures through dance and theatre".
It was a vision endorsed by prominent activist Uncle Charles ‘Chicka’ Dixon.
In 1991 Johnson passed on the torch of artistic director to Brisbane-born Nunukul/Munaldjali man and choreographer Stephen Page — a 25-year-old graduate of NAISDA.
Twenty-five productions and 28 years on, Page said he was excited at the prospect of leading Bangarra into its fourth decade.
"Over 100 communities around this country have entrusted [us] in some way with their story, their song, their traditional dancing," Page said
Honouring their stories is a responsibility he takes very seriously.
In December, to mark its 30th anniversary, Bangarra launched Knowledge Ground, a digital archive and free online resource, and a free exhibition of the same name at Carriageworks in Sydney.
Page, who co-curated the exhibition, said both projects were "a gift to those three decades" and the generations of dancers, choreographers, supporters and cultural custodians who had contributed to the company’s survival and success.
The exhibition traverses six themes: history, country, social issues, costume, homelands and soundscape) to illuminate the intricate tapestry of choreography, design, cultural consultation and research involved in a Bangarra production.
In the first section of the exhibition, three suspended set pieces of monumental scale greet visitors.
First is a coolamon-shaped nest constructed from branches from Bangarra’s 2000 production Skin, followed by two otherworldly pieces from their Helpmann Award-winning 2017 production Bennelong: an ochre sculpture that reads 1788 and a large sacred ring intricately bound in cloth, emitting delicate wisps of smoke.
Around the corner, a towering curved screen invites visitors to be engulfed in the cinematic soundscapes and compositions of the late songman Roy David Page.
Bangarra — meaning "to make fire" in Wiradjuri language — is more than an arts company, Page said: "It’s a cultural foundation, it cares for stories."
"We’re carrying history that reflects our culture and our heritage. It’s a contemporary curation and perspective of it, but it’s carrying the integrity of our heritage. It’s truly Australian."
A revolutionary idea for the time
Bangarra’s ethos of melding contemporary and traditional, urban and ancient, can be traced back to Carole J. Johnson’s first visit to Australia, in 1972.
At the time, she was a principal dancer with New York’s Eleo Pomare Dance Company — known for their social-protest works — but had been invited by the Australia Council for the Arts Indigenous Officer Jennifer Isaacs to teach contemporary dance workshops in Redfern.
The workshops were a hit, and in 1975 Johnson worked with Indigenous actor and director Brian Syron to create a six-week training program for the Black Theatre in Redfern.
This program brought together Aboriginal and Torres Strait styles with contemporary dance, cultural custodians and Western choreographers — and helped usher in a new Australian dance artform: "contemporary Indigenous dance".
From the kitchen table to the world stage
Page recalls the 90s as a good time for the arts, which he said had strong support from the government of the day.
"There was something fermenting around the climate at the time that allowed us to be confident and empowered," he said.
"I was around these emerging contemporary black visionaries that were working in other mediums."
He listed filmmakers Rachel Perkins, Sally Riley and Erica Glynn and artists Tracy Moffatt, Michael Riley, Fiona Foley and Djon Mundine OAM.
Victoria-based Ilbijerri Theatre Company was established soon after Bangarra, in 1990, and Western Australia-based Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company formed in 1993.
These remain the only three Indigenous-led national performing arts companies in Australia.
Early on, Bangarra was invited to perform and attend government and cultural gatherings.
"Our dance, our story, our presence and energy was part of their conversations about culture and politics and the empowering of Indigenous people," Page said.
Reflecting back, he said the optimism and opportunities afforded to his generation would not have been possible without the contributions of the "Black Diggers in the 80s and 70s … the Referendum in 67 [and] the tent embassy."
1992 was an important year for Bangarra.
Page debuted Praying Mantis Dreaming — the company’s first full-length production — and having operated out of co-founder Cheryl Stone’s living room for the last three years, Bangarra moved to a new home at the Police Boys’ Club in Redfern.
By the end of that same year the company performed as "the support act" for then-prime minister Paul Keating’s historic Redfern Park address, launching 1993 as the UN’s International Year of the World’s Indigenous People.
Reflecting across three decades, the long-serving artistic director shared his pick of the Bangarra’s landmark works.
In 1994 Bangarra was awarded its first Australia Council grant, paving the way for Ochres.
"Ochres was traditionally about simplicity of place and substance," Page said.
"There’s four major colours, black, red, yellow and white, through most communities and most clans around the country.
"[Ochres is] about the metaphor of a being a clay and how it empowers you, or how that clay decides a line to your lineage and your kinships."
It was also the first time the company brought together contemporary music with language.
"That’s a milestone work. That was the work that really propelled us into the mainstream. But at the same time empowered our people and our community," Page said.
"Skin was looking at our social issues through our Black lens," Page said.
The production was comprised of two works: Spear, about contemporary men’s business; and Shelter, about contemporary women’s business.
Spear examined the issues faced by Aboriginal men in urban and remote contexts and marked the company’s first collaboration with Archie Roach.
Shelter was inspired by the works of late Aboriginal artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye and the cultural practices of women from the Central Desert and Utopia regions.
"[In Skin] We got to play with different mediums, we got to play with video work, we got to play with spoken text," Page said.
Its subject was David Unaipon: "a Ngarrindjeri man and one of our first scientists, inventors and … black authors," Page said.
"I mentored [Frances] from a dancer to a creator and I was just so proud to see her mind and [see] her go back on country and connect with family and the David Unaipon family."
"Mathinna was a young Aboriginal girl removed from her traditional home and adopted into western colonial society," Page said.
"Our production Matthina is inspired by her journey, and it is she that is the first archetype of the Stolen Generations, as the ‘stolen child’, caught between two cultures," Page said.
Considerable research was conducted to bring the production to life, including consultation with Elders from the Aboriginal Tasmanian community.
For Bennelong, which premiered at Sydney Opera House, Bangarra worked closely with cultural creative consultants, the community of the Eora and the Gadigal people to tell the story of one of their pioneering leaders.
"We were performing down at Bennelong Point. Finally we could be in the country, the nation we reside [in], the Eora Nation," Page said.
The story is set in 1762: "We don’t talk about 1788, we go to 1762 … we feel that’s the time he [Bennelong] might have been born," Page said.
"When we reclaim a historical story, we put it through the Black lens we don’t go in from the white perspective…we try to push that aside … You start to unravel from the white perspective and you can somehow get a sense of the spirit from the Black perspective."
Tip of the iceberg
"What you see on [the theatre] stage is just the tip of the iceberg," Yolande Brown, who spent two years meticulously diving into the archives and curating the Knowledge Ground digital platform, said.
Brown joined the company in 1999 and enjoyed a 16-year career as a dancer.
In addition to retrospective interviews, photographs, music, costume and set designs, the digital archive is also "a record of cultural consultancy and language translations," she said.
As the company enters its fourth decade, the former dancer said she saw Knowledge Ground as an accessible free resource that could offer young people, parents, teachers and allies a much needed First Nations perspective.
"I feel like we’re reaching a critical mass with people wanting to know the deep history of this country," she said.
"There’s a climate crisis right now so people are wanting to reassess priorities."
With Knowledge Ground, she said, there was an opportunity to understand "how people have worked with Country for millennia in reciprocity and sustainably".
For Page, the digital archive not only charted the company’s past and present, but would play a role in ensuring the survival of the "cultural fuel" that must be passed onto the next generation of storytellers.
In dreaming of the possibilities ahead, the award-winning artistic director said he was reminded of how different life was for his parents.
"They grew in a generation where they couldn’t be empowered like I am by my culture and stories," he said.
"We can live in a time now, completely different to my parents’ and my grandparents’ [generation] where we almost have the freedom to lead and rejuvenate our culture."
Topics: arts-and-entertainment, dance, indigenous-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander, stolen-generations, race-relations, community-and-society, history, indigenous-culture, visual-art, installation, design, sydney-2000, australia
First posted December 13, 2019 14:55:36
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December 13, 2019 at 03:22PM