Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Kinship brings together the past and present in a two-part work that celebrates a traditional creation story and also explores the issue of Aboriginal identity in the 21st century.
Artistic director and choreographer Stephen Page says the two stories in the production – Brolga, created in 2001, and ID, created in 2011 – show the evolution of the company as it celebrates its 25 anniversary this year.
Kinship is performed by 14 dancers along with artist-in-residence/cultural adviser Kathy Baingayngu Marika, an elder from Yirrkala, and will be the first time Bangarra has returned to Adelaide since it presented Terrain in 2012.
“Brolga was a small creation, mythological story I had heard about a young girl’s totem being a brolga [large bird],” Page tells InDaily, explaining that the inspiration for the first story came from his visits to North-East Arnhem Land.
“One afternoon she was sent off to hunt and gather alone, and was warned if she didn’t come back she could lose her way and something might happen.”
The girl dallies and ends up caught in a brolga feeding ground, thus beginning a journey exploring the relationship between the totemic system and the human spirit.
ID, on the other hand, tackles a much more contemporary issue: social black politics and the question of Aboriginal identity. Page says the idea was sparked when Bangarra’s former chairperson, Larissa Behrendt, was involved in legal action against columnist Andrew Bolt over his comments about “fair-skinned” Aboriginal people.
“I was thinking how in the ’50s you had to be a fair-skinned Aboriginal to be accepted and now you have to be dark-skinned,” Page says.
ID presents around eight vignettes – both dramatic and humorous – looking at different perspectives on identity and challenging stereotypes. Ultimately, says Page, it is a celebration of the resilience of Indigenous culture
“In the end there is a sense of hope, a sense of pride and empowerment that sort of implodes over the whole question.”
The Adelaide performances of Kinship coincide with Bangarra’s largest ever regional tour, which has included free open-air performances in Aboriginal communities around the country. While the tour is part of the company’s 25th anniversary celebrations, Page says regularly going on country is crucial to the dancers’ professional development.
It also enables Bangarra to share its work with the communities who trust it to give contemporary creative expression to their traditional culture.
“Going back on country for us has to be in the dancers’ diet at least every 18 months – I think it’s good, it’s healthy, it’s a huge part of who we are.
“We inherit something that’s 40,000 years old … it’s about evolving that, maintaining the integrity of those values and taking it through to the 21st century.”
Bangarra Dance Theatre has come a long way in 25 years, with the ensemble now comprising 14 full-time dancers and a core professional staff; it tours regularly and runs a strong education program. Page, who has been at the helm since 1991, says a total of more than 120 dancers have passed through since it began.
“I think what’s kept us on the straight and narrow is that we’ve kept rekindling and reconnecting to our roots, so it sort of becomes the spine to all the other modern influences,” he says, reflecting on the changing world of Australian contemporary dance.
While he acknowledges that there are challenges – “it’s not always blooming wattles out there” – Page also believes that Indigenous culture in general and the Indigenous performing and visual arts scene is currently very strong.
The modern Western idea that successful professionals should always be either on the move or contemplating their next role means he is often asked by the media how long he plans to stay with Bangarra. It’s a question that bemuses him – this company is his family and its outlook is brighter than ever. Why would he want to leave?
Bangarra Dance Theatre is presenting Kinship at the Dunstan Playhouse from October 22-25.
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