This year Bangarra Dance Theatre turns 30 and celebrates the anniversary with a triple bill called 30 Years of Sixty Five Thousand, which brings together the old and the new (to Bangarra), with existing Bangarra works programmed alongside Jiří Kylián’s Stamping Ground – the inclusion of which marks a new footprint for the company.
Stamping Ground. Photograph © Daniel Boud
Not only is Kylián’s work a thrilling piece in its own right, but it is the first time Bangarra has performed a work by a non-Indigenous choreographer, and the first time it has performed something not commissioned for the company. What’s more, the backstory to Stamping Ground makes it a particularly exciting choice.
In 1980, already fascinated with Aboriginal dance, Kylián attended a large corroboree on Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria, attended by thousands of men, women and children. He was deeply moved by what he saw and in 1983 Netherlands Dance Theatre Company (of which he was then Artistic Director) premiered Stamping Ground, which was inspired by the experience.
In a beautiful move, the work now returns to Country with this performance by Bangarra. Roslyn Anderson, who was Kylián’s assistant when he was creating the piece in Holland, has rehearsed it and has drawn wonderful performances by the six dancers featured: Tara Gower, Baden Hitchcock, Rika Hamaguchi, Ella Havelka, Tyrel Dulvarie and Ryan Pearson.
A few excerpts from a video made on Groote Eylandt at the 1980 corroboree is a wonderful addition, with comments from Kylián showing what a profound experience it was for him, and how deeply he understood what dance means in the Aboriginal culture. He talks about how he was looking for “inspiration not imitation”. The experience proved pivotal in his career, with Anderson saying in the theatre program that it influenced everything he subsequently choreographed.
Performed against a shiny fringe curtain, through which the dancers appear and disappear, almost as if by magic at times, Stamping Ground begins in silence with six solos, then as Carlos Chávez’s percussive score kicks in, the choreography expands into dynamic duos and trios. Bent knees, slapped thighs, swiveling bodies, extended arms and taut heads blend with little flashes of humour. It’s exciting to see the dancers perform movement that is so different to what they are used to, but guided by Anderson, all six do a wonderful job. It’s an exhilarating, joyous piece.
Tyrel Dulvarie in Unaipon. Photograph © Daniel Boud
The evening begins with Frances Rings’ Unaipon. Commissioned by Page in 2004 when he was Artistic Director of the Adelaide Festival, it was Rings’ first major work and explores the life and impact of David Unaipon, the Aboriginal inventor, philosopher, writer and storyteller who features on the Australian $50 note.
The gorgeous opening, Ngarrindjeri ( In the beginning), performed behind a scrim, features the outstanding Tyrel Dulvarie as Unaipon gliding across the stage on a hidden platform as we hear Unaipon philosophise on our existence in the universe, his words woven through the beguiling score by the late David Page. The piece also includes a section on traditional weaving for “sister baskets”, string games, and sections on Science and Religion. The Four Winds sequence in the Science section is particularly beautiful, with solos by Tara Gower, Rika Hamaguchi, Lillian Banks and Tyrel Dulvarie. With Rings recently appointed as Bangarra’s Associate Artistic Director, Unaipon looks to the past but is also a pointer to the future.
The program ends with To Make Fire (the meaning of Bangarra in Wiradjuri), a collection of excerpts from previous Bangarra works: Mathina (2008), About (2011), ID (2011) and Rush (2002), featuring choreography by Page and Elma Kris. Page describes the chosen pieces as “meditative works about identity, resilience and strength”. To Make Fire, he adds, “is not a best of program; it is a gift back to our mother creation spirit of 65,000 years, the spirit that keeps us thriving into the future.”
With beautiful costumes by Jennifer Irwin, striking set designs by Jacob Nash and Peter England, evocative lighting by Nick Schlieper, and lush music by David Page and Steve Francis, it’s a lovely way to end the program, showing us the range of work from Bangarra, culminating with choreography from Rush that sits so naturally on the bodies of the dancers it fills your heart.
Bangarra Dance Theatre performs 30 Years of Sixty Five Thousand at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until July 13 then tours to Canberra, July 18 – 20; Perth, July 31 – August 3; Darwin, August 17; Brisbane, August 23 –31; Melbourne, September 5 – 14; Adelaide, September 19 – 21; Hobart, October 3 – 5