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Bennelong review (Bangarra, Sydney Opera House)

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Under the sails of the Sydney Opera House, on the same harbour point where Governor Phillip once built him a brick hut, Bangarra now stages this remarkable dance theatre tale about Bennelong. Snatched away to be the colony’s ambassador to his people, Bennelong was reportedly the first Aboriginal man to learn and write English, take up European ways and sail to London. 

But was he an appeaser seduced by vanities of white power or a realist negotiator? A father of reconciliation, a fighter or a victim? Or all of these?

Director Stephen Page’s Bennelong certainly tells a vivid story of cultural shock, disease, survival and adaptability – but also suggests necessarily there’s a Bennelong in every Indigenous Australian. And it didn’t end well for him. Perhaps that’s why many talk less of Bennelong and more of the resistance warrior Pemulwuy.

Page though is well qualified to dance into this cauldron of contested histories with this, his 26th production. After those stunning first elemental works in the 1990s around country, and later contemporary portraits of urban dispossession, Bangarra more recently has told histories both black and white. Among others, Patyegarang (2014) was the story of that young Aboriginal woman and her intimacy and exchange of language with Lt William Dawes in this same colonial Sydney. 

Bennelong is darker and less optimistic than Patyegarang, but is the more successful dance work, with its charged narrative beautifully supported by words in song. With dramaturg Alana Valentine, Page tells his story chronologically through 16 vignettes from Bennelong’s birth to his death, alcoholic and abandoned by all in a backyard in Putney.   

While this linear structure threatens to be repetitive and could so easily degenerate into historical pantomime, it never does. Page and his creative team, so practised now as collaborators, keep the narrative driving and its thematic handling powerfully impressionistic. 

Steve Francis’ score, with additional music and lyrics in language by Matthew Doyle, is a masterpiece collage of emotional power, melodies, techno assault, sounds of sea, wind and country, old racist shanties, Rule Britannia and a touch of Haydn when Bennelong and his mate stumble into London society.   

When Yemmerawanya dies in London, his body is hauled from the stage, forgotten, on the back of an aristocrat’s long purple cloak. Jennifer Iwin’s artful costumes, across time and cultures, here make no disguise that these nightmare figures are seen through Aboriginal eyes. And the next scene, Repatriation, equally avoids pantomime as Bennelong and the powerful ubiquitous spirit, dance elder Elam Kris, mourn Yemmerawanya, dancing to Valentine’s whispered horror words of body parts. 

Jacob Nash is well known for Bangarra’s richly textured, painterly backdrops which are here confidently fused with iconic elements like the suspended opening circle of light and smoke, a huge figure abstraction of “1788” and the silver prison walls slowly being built around the dying spirit of Bennelong. Nick Schlieper evocatively lights these elements and with his signature side-lighting picks out the dancers with sculptural precision.

Bennelong is Bangarra at the height of its powers and collaborative storytelling. It’s now 18 dancers number what was – and is no longer – the size of the Sydney Dance Company.

Not unlike Graeme Murphy, who at the SDC helped groom him as a dancer and young choreographer, Stephen Page draws on these dancers and collaborations to direct compelling dance theatre stories.

While this strength underpins a choreography which can run into generalised movement, Bennelong has some outstanding signatures, especially in the group work of Page’s dancers. Like kangaroos, over their shoulders they sniff with alarm the arrival of the settlers. Later they curl and stretch long in the death throes of small pox. And again, dramatic and abstracted production elements lift these scenes beyond the obvious. Page’s choreography is particularly striking when the tribes interact, together and in pairs, with the new arrivals, as these white ghosts with crooked arms semaphore their march across the stage.

Dancer Beau Dean Riley Smith is an amazingly agile and yet nuggetty Bennelong, intense and yet enigmatic as to what motives him. I missed the details of Bennelong’s supposed character – his charm, humour and manipulating self-interest – but perhaps that must wait for the epic film which begs to made about this landmark story. 

Daniel Riley too has little room for character subtlety but he dances an interesting Phillip, striving and anxious. And Jasmin Sheppard is notable as one of Bennelong’s wives, Barangaroo.

Bennelong is at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until July 29, then tours to Canberra, Brisbane and Melbourne. Photo by Vishal Pandey

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