Fascinating tale of first contact makes for a rich tapestry of Indigenous dance.

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

June 12, 2014

The story of Patyegarang, a woman of the Eora nation who befriended the timekeeper of the colonial fleet and taught him her language is a truly remarkable one. The bones are set down in the series of notebooks kept at the time by Lieutenant William Dawes, rediscovered in 1972 and now held in a London library (you can read them online at williamdawes.org). The genius of this telling of the tale through contemporary dance is the imaginative flesh that choreographer and Bangarra Artistic Director Stephen Page has managed to put on them – and created a 70-minute semi-narrative ballet in the process.

That process is beautifully documented in Alana Valentine’s dramaturgical program note – in essence an exchange of ideas from page to Page (if you’ll pardon the pun). But what makes Patyegarang hold the attention is the choreographer’s smart refusal to be drawn into simple, literal storytelling. Instead he gives us a series of cultural snapshots, each dealing with a theme or issue – some of them abstract (belonging, acceptance) – some of them more concrete (conflict, teaching) – within which he can show narrative fragments when he chooses to do so.

Not only does that keep an audience on its imaginative toes, it allows for the juxtaposition of solos, duets and vigorous company numbers, while avoiding cliché and heavy-handed history painting. Bangarra Dance Theatre rises beautifully to the occasion, demonstrating discipline, passion and skill plus plenty of individual personality. Page asks them to let their bodies explore the space and they respond with springing leaps, stretching limbs and a great deal of demanding angularity. The company are as adept at showing hunters and gatherers stalking across the land as they are revelling in the celebratory and ritual opportunities that Page dots throughout his ballet. The women are especially powerful with some fine footwork and an expressive series of ensemble dances showing their integral role in the community as providers and teachers.

The two central characters are wonderfully contrasted. As Patyegarang, Jasmin Sheppard is a diminutive figure next to the hulking Dawes of Thomas Greenfield but this only serves to highlight the magic of their developing bond. Sheppard is a lithe, generous dancer with grace and style, always adaptable in her role as teacher. Greenfield has possibly the more interesting journey – a man of science, fascinated by everything around him, including the compelling Eora woman who is prepared to give so much of herself. His physicality is always impressive – following, investigating, mimicking – and the radiant duets between the two are, as they should be, the highlights of the evening. The sequence where the two watch the stars, coming as they do from two different hemispheres is magical, as is the subtle suggestion that ‘first contact’ may have involved something a bit more literal than that.

Jacob Nash’s effective set lights up beautifully thanks to Nick Schlieper’s sensitive design, capturing a sense of heat and colour – those special qualities familiar from the Sydney surrounds. Jennifer Irwin’s costumes are similarly evocative, especially the women’s skirts in the first part, which are swirled, lifted and even pulled over their heads in one memorable sequence evoking birds or lizards. David Page’s substantial score has some effective moments (and may appeal more to some), but it tends towards the ‘Cirque de Soleil school’ with its heavily amplified sound and beat.

The evening presents a poignant juxtaposition: Bangarra, 25-years-old this year, are teachers of Aboriginal culture in much the same way as Patyegarang taught Dawes all those years ago. The difference, at times, is summed up by Richard Green, a Dharug Yellamundie man and creative cultural advisor for the project: “Dawes was different, he listened”. With so much to enjoy, why not have a listen (and look) yourselves.

Patyegarang is on national tour until November 12.

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