Dance, Reviews, Stage

Dance Rites review (Sydney Opera House)

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The traditional dances of nine First Nations returned to the headland of the Sydney Opera House with the debut yesterday, November 22, of Dance Rites.
Where peoples once gathered for centuries on that former island, and where Governor Philip later built a hut for his favoured Aborigine, Bennelong, nations from the east coast of Australia danced their signature welcome and farewells, displaying their colours, skin markings and chants.
Rhoda Roberts — who says she’s the only dedicated indigenous programmer at an Australian performance venue — wanted to see the competition expanded across the continent and the finals staged on Australia Day. Meanwhile, on the House’s Western Broadwalk, framed against the Harbour Bridge and busy traffic of sails, thousands observed the morning heats and then the five finalists in the evening.
The first up finalist was Waang Djarii, from the Biripi lands around NSW mid- coast towns like Taree. With leaders Wayne Paulson and Jeremy Saunders on didgeridoo, the women in long possum cloaks and the men marked in white handprints, waved gum leaves and stomped their welcome into the sandy stage. Later, to clacking sticks, the cloaks were splayed opened like wings and the arms beaked forwards into the heads of emus.
This was especially dynamic Aboriginal dance, the eyes of the teenage boys ablaze with purpose, their bent knees gyrating inwards and outwards and the women notably accurate for their waving and swaying in time.
Each group was also judged on their performance of a Wild Card dance, fusing their traditions to the contemporary. These Biripi Shark Dancers leapt into club moves to the sounds of Archie Roach’s anthem for freedom.
In contrast, the eight all female Djaadjawan Dancers from the Yuin Nation are regular experienced performers at cultural events on the NSW South Coast. Their hair whitened and feathered, in grass skirts and with leaves, they danced a homage of the osprey.
Their movements were more unified than the men earlier, their focus downward, but the beat to the flute-like sounds of the didgeridoo was toe-tapping. Often they froze in their bird dance or they flocked together centre stage. The Djaadjawan Dancers won third place.
Hailing from the Koomurri Nation, from around Nowra, the Yuin Ghoodjarga boys took out the second prize ($5000). In red loin clothes and headbands, long red body stripes and white feathers, they entered connected as one long death adder, the chanting voice, sticks and didgeridoos adding urgent drama.
The mimicry of these young men as terrified kangaroos was fabulously sharp, as was their later swimming motions in the black duck dance. Their Wild Card hip hip version was less co-ordinated but joyful as they parodied their elders throwing away their sticks for the freedom of the beat.
Next came Thika Billa, the Cowra-Wiradjuri Dancers from central west NSW, eight big fellows with scarified markings, orange chest patterning and black loin clothes. They too leapt and postured into animal forms as they danced a creation story, chanting and clapping a jig which sounded near Celtic.
While a few groups are practiced performers of their traditions, Dance Rites seeks to inspire all communities to local research, clan consultation and the ultimate preservation of traditional signature dance, markings and costumes. Strings of older aunties and uncles, weavers and elder choreographers, have already shared knowledge and helped get these younger performers get up to scratch.
Since every indigenous nation has/had its own signature cultures, Rhoda Roberts speaks of Dance Rites as collecting and confirming the “classics” of her peoples. The Native American Pow-Wow circuit and New Zealand’s Kapa Haka are an inspiration. Interestingly, for now at least, the 2015 participants came from Australia’s near coastal communities, where culture, she says, is strongest.
Luckily then, the Torres Strait Islander mob came last.
Perhaps it’s that smell of the sea, but their nine singers in brightly patterned shirts and dresses, and dancers in shell headbands with vast plumages, would make a tough act to follow.
All dancing here was tightly orchestrated. A female trio expertly circulated into a weaving dance. A male trio of black feathered war dancers blew conch shells or brandished gigantic bows and arrows. Chanting (an important criteria of the judging) was low and rumbling and then, like the dancers, strident with conviction.
While drawn from the Sabai Island, the Naygayiw Gigi represents the Bamaga community stretching across far north Queensland, and to where Islanders were forced to evacuate due to high tides. And so their Sabai dances also draw on local Aboriginal elements.
No one though could quibble with the three judges who made them the winners of the inaugural 2015 Dance Rites, with the prize of of $15,000.
[box]Pictures by Prudence Upton. Martin Portus was a donor to Dance Rites through the philanthropic Creative Music Fund.[/box]

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