So, if I told you there was a ‘death in custody’ scene in ID
, Stephen Page’s new work for Bangarra, would you be put off? Chances are, the only people who would avoid ID
on the strength of that little spoiler are the uninitiated... those not familiar with Bangarra and its artistic director of 19-and-a-bit years.
On the stage, yes, of course that scene is harrowing. But it’s not mawkish or manipulative. Indeed, the dead man’s rigor mortis is a magical transformation, like something out of Ovid. Before our eyes, this blackfella martyr (played by Patrick Thaiday last night, Waangenga Blanco alternates in the role) metamorphs into a gnarly, petrified tree.Patrick Thaiday in ID (Photograph: Jeff Busby)
It’s an oddly thrilling moment, it lights up the mind while piercing the heart.
It’s not the first such moment in Page’s career as a dance maker, nor will it be the last. It’s merely the latest highlight. Add it to Ochres, his breakthrough piece for Bangarra in the early 1990s, and Alchemy for the Australian Ballet in 1996. (I regard Alchemy as a more significant milestone than Rites, which he created the following year on the joint forces of Bangarra and the Australian Ballet.) Page -- as a dancer -- was also part of the legendary, game-changing AIDT tour of 1989 which blazed the trail for the creation of Bangarra. I remember comin’ out of the Melbourne Town Hall awed.
Another moment in ID also had me gasping. It was as if Leah Purcell’s Black Chicks Talking had been condensed into a single conga line. Five dancers: two women, one man, two more women. The man has the number ‘1’ painted on his chest. The others turn to reveal their ‘fractions’ which are painted on their backs. Instantly, we realise his 1 = full-blood.
Before reading Purcell’s book, I’d never encountered the word quadroon. (I’m kinda shocked, I’ve gotta say, that my spell checker doesn’t blink when I type the word.) I guess that makes Yolande Brown a hexadecaroon, cos she’s the one with 1/16 painted on her back. There’s an eighth, a twelfth and a fourteenth behind her. I immediately thought of Purcell asking the Tassie beauty queen (whose name escapes me just now) point blank: which part of you is Aboriginal today?
The United Colours of Bangarra (Jeff Busby)
ID, in case you haven’t already twigged, is about identity. But -- like Purcell’s TV show and the book and stage show spin-offs -- it’s not specifically for white audiences. It’s a representation of what Page calls the “internal debate amongst Aboriginal people.” About the “thousand dialects” in his culture.
Perhaps inevitably, the piece is unintegrated and sometimes clunky. Even jarring. But it begins incredibly strongly (with the centrifugal dancing of Daniel Riley McKinley) and is never less than engaging... especially when the dancers are blacking their faces with Vegemite! (!!)
Just as the success of the Australian Ballet is underwritten by the quality of the Australian Ballet School, Bangarra is underwritten by NAISDA and to a lesser extent by the ACPA. The quality of the first year dancers in the company is astounding, while the mid-rank and established dancers continue to evolve. Hell... Yolande Brown actually stole a scene from Patrick Thaiday in Elma Kris’s new work About. I’m pretty sure that’s never happened before! (When Thaiday’s on stage, you tend not to blink for fear of missing something.)
About by Elma Kris (Photograph: Jeff Busby)
Elsewhere Ella Havelka gave Deborah Brown (another of the company’s stars) a good run for her money. And if Waangenga Blanco soars any higher, his wings’ll catch fire.
Kris’s new work, her second, is a wonderfully lyrical piece about the winds of the Torres Strait. (She was raised on Thursday Island.) The frieze-like choreography is simple compared to Page’s, but no less apt or effective. And, here, it’s exceptionally well executed. It’s also beautifully set, musically as well as visually. It’s a satisfying and complete work... four seasons in half an hour.
Only a few hundred seats are still available to Belong, so you’ll have to be quick.
Belong, a double bill by Bangarra Dance Theatre. Playhouse, the Arts Centre, Melbourne, September 16. Season -- and national tour -- ends September 24. Set designs by Jacob Nash. Costume designs by Emma Howell. Lighting designs by Matt Cox.
About by Elma Kris. Music by David Page and Steve Francis.
ID by Stephen Page. Music by David Page. AV design by Declan McMonagle. Cinematography by Eric Murray Lui.
Labels: Bangarra Dance Theatre, Elma Kris, Leah Purcell, Patrick Thaiday, Stephen Page, Yolande Brown