At least 65 thousand years ago, the first people came to the continent we now call Australia.
These intrepid forebears, of the Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander nations, established the world’s longest surviving culture.
Many distinct languages, evocative pictographs, exquisite art, specialized tools, intricate land curatorship, elaborate cuisine, detailed curative methods, profound narrative story-telling, deep spiritual insight, extensive song-lines of trade, inspiring human inter-relationships . . . a stunning timeline rich in creativity and resilience.
Among countless defining watersheds, that mark breakthrough moments in this epic, gutsy odyssey through the millennia, is 1989. Thirty years ago, Carole Y. Johnson, Rob Bryant and Cheryl Stone created Bangarra Dance Theatre, thus founding one of the world’s authentically indigenous and genuinely inter-cultural beacons of global art.
To spectacularly celebrate Bangarra’s first thirty years, for the very first time the dance company performs a work by a non-Aboriginal artist, with Jiri Kylian’s Stamping Ground.
In 1980, Jiri Kylian, legendary choreographer and artistic director of the Nederlands Dans Theatre (NDT), met with Gulf of Carpentaria elders. He showed them a video of dancers from his dance company. The elders watched in silence. They went away without a word.
Next day the elders came back with the verdict: “He is a good dreamer!”
Together with his colleagues, Kylian worked with the elders, their communities and organisations to arrange a large corroboree on Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Over a thousand Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander men, women and children from all over the country travelled to attend the week-long event.
The experience became a seminal, life-changing designator of Kylian’s life.
Three years later in The Hague, NDT performed Stamping Ground, his visceral, robust and scintillatingly naked response to Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander dance: a mesmerizing celebration of the intercourse of indigenous earthiness and contemporary innovation, conjuring supple magic to make dreams palpable and sheer joy breathtaking.
Kylian says that Stamping Ground lets the dancers discover the spirit in themselves, which creates a simultaneously playful, provocative, delicate and highly charged work with energy that draws on the strength and fragility of our emotional being.
Bangarra’s Artistic Director Stephen Page recalls how “Stamping Ground has been in my head since before Bangarra existed! We considered what a beautiful moment it could be: that in our 30th we could bring what Jiri was inspired by back on Country and let it be in the bodies of our great artists who come from the land of his first inspiration – a beautiful closing of the circle. Jiri agreed!
“Here I must acknowledge Shane Carroll [Bangarra Dance Teacher] for her unwavering support and guidance for literally decades to bring Stamping Ground to Bangarra – and Roslyn Anderson [Jiri Kylian’s Choreographic Assistant] for her wonderful depth of knowledge in sharing Jiri’s connection to this work, and the dance language that Stamping Ground embodies, so carefully with our dancers.”
Also on offer in this show is Bangarra Dance Theatre’s biography of David Unaipon (1872-1967), a Ngarrindjeri man of the Warrawaldi clan, credited with being the first published Aboriginal author. Inventor, philosopher, writer and storyteller, his image is reproduced on the Australian $50 note.
He studied astronomy and made connections to the myths and legends about the stars within his own culture. He mapped the flight pattern of the boomerang, which fed into his later inventions and explorations of aerodynamics.
Unaipon began to study mechanics and conducted experiments in perpetual motion, ballistics and polarized light. Many of his discoveries were picked up by other scientists and are still in use today.
In 1924 he travelled for a year on foot through southern Australia – researching and writing a manuscript titled Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines. It was stolen by William Ramsay Smith, Chief Medical Officer of South Australia, who published it under his own name in London in 1930. The book was finally published in Unaipon’s name in 2001.
In 2004, current Associate Artistic Director, Frances Rings, captivatingly transposed Unaipon’s life into the medium of contemporary dance for the Bangarra Dance Theatre in her now classic work Unaipon.
“I was really interested in his three passions, science, his own culture and [Christian] religion. I broke the work into three parts and based it on his passions. This work became about our bodies being the means to explore those passions.
“But I am different to who I was in 2004. There is a new generation of dancers at Bangarra and they bring a different form. Industry practice has moved into a new direction; this generation is trained differently. I was really able to refine and push the physicality.”
Set to composer David Page’s score, Frances Ring’s Unaipon is reinterpreted with fresh verve and reignited with engrossing vigour as part of Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Thirty Year anniversary show.
The final work on the bill is Artistic Director Stephen Page’s and choreographer Elma Kris’s To Make Fire, which showcases historical and biographical works from Bangarra Dance Theatre’s repertoire.
First up is an excerpt from the Helpmann award-winning production Mathinna (2008), about a young Lowreenne Tasmanian girl, who was removed from her home, only to be ultimately rejected and returned to the fragments of her original heritage.
Second is About (2001, Belong), lushly exploring the heart-and-flesh spirits of the four winds: Zey, cool breeze, feminine in nature, moving with fluidity; Kuti, wind of tropical storms and rough seas; Naygay, the calm, gentle, wisps of wafting air; and Sager, the dominant wind from the southeast bringing white dust across the islands.
The third and final segment, Clan (excerpts of ID from Belong, 2001, and Rush from Walkabout, 2002) embodies, in Stephen Page’s words, “the hope, spirit and continuation of knowledge that we share – that we’re all born from that spirit of 65,000 years and this will take us into the next 30 years” with the confidence to resolve the pain of the past, to reclaim authentic identity, and to enjoy intrepid, robust and rich creativity.
Bangarra Dance Theatre’s 30 Years of Sixty Thousand is at the Sydney Opera House until 13 July before travelling around the nation to all capital cities.