Bangarra ‘Dark Emu’ dance review (Arts Centre, Melbourne)

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We know how this story ends, but what about the beginning? That’s the question Dark Emu forces us to ask about our understanding of how indigenous Australians lived before British colonisation.

Bangarra Dance Theatre’s new production, directed by Stephen Page, and choreographed with Daniel Riley and Yolande Brown, culminates in the often-told scene of invasion.

But the preceding journey is much more unexpected, as it rips to shreds the legal fiction that the first Australians lived a ‘hunter-gatherer life’, and that the Country was ‘no-man’s-land’ when the settlers arrived.

Instead, it depicts a society that championed sophisticated farming techniques, water management systems, and sustainable fishing. They were settled in constructed homes, and followed domestic routines.

This perspective, stemming from Bruce Pascoe’s 2014 book, Dark Emu BLACK SEEDS: agriculture or accident?, is brought to life in 70 mesmerising minutes of contemporary dance.

Scenes include the ‘Ceremony of Seed’, ‘Forged by Fire’, and ‘Bogong Moth Harvest’, all reflecting the changing seasons and the related interactions between humans and nature. We follow the cast of 18 as they explore the vast sky, fall to their knees and plant seeds in the dusty earth, and dive deep to capture fish.

The expert dancers make the experience visceral and immersive. We hear the deliberate swishing of feet, see ochre dust shimmer off agile limbs, and feel the emotion in every twist and turn. A strong bond between performers and audience was formed on opening night in Melbourne, leading to a standing ovation.

Each transition is marked with a new set by Jacob Nash and lighting design by Sian James-Holland, who portrayed a modern minimalism yet steeped in Aboriginal symbolism. The narrative is further emphasised by Jennifer Irwin’s costumes that reflect the natural environment, made with wools, silks, leaves and moss.

Composer Steve Francis punctuates his score with sound effects of rain, flies, cattle, wind and human voices, all adding to the sense of immersion.

The outcome of the narrative, dance, art and music is a beautiful and thought-provoking piece. It could be just as powerful without depicting the invasion, as we can mourn the loss of this world simply through our knowledge of the fate to come. However, the narrative forces us to rethink the ‘truths’ of Australian history, ask how this changes our Australian story, and how this better understanding can bring us closer to reconciliation.

At the Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne until September 15. Photo by Daniel Boud

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