Dance, Reviews, Stage

OUR land people stories review (Bangarra, Sydney Opera House)

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OUR land people stories is the first production by Bangarra Dance Theatre since the death of David Page, the music director and composer who created the company’s sound, blending traditional indigenous music with a contemporary aesthetic. His is a legacy which has influenced countless Australian artists and, although Page only composed the score to one part of this triple bill, you can hear his voice clearly in all three scores.

The first work is choreographer and dancer Jasmin Sheppard’s 2013 piece Macq, which deals with the Appin Massacre of 1816, and the evolution of Governor Lachlan Macquarie from friend to foe of the indigenous population of New South Wales.

It begins with a group of female dancers huddled together with their backs to the audience, slowly shuffling in a tight formation. They separate to reveal dancer Nicola Sabatino, sobbing over a man’s body. Sabatino slowly wraps her body around his while her whole being seems to radiate and vibrate with grief. It’s an outpouring; an ending. But she tries to wrap herself within the man’s body and even reanimate him.

Then the curtain suddenly rises to reveal a decadent picnic held by Macquarie (Daniel Riley) for the indigenous population, before the relationship fractured.

Riley is brilliant as Macquarie, wrapping and throwing himself around a long banquet table, tracing his character’s journey with startling force.

Sheppard’s choreography is gorgeously inventive and as eclectic as Page’s score and Jennifer Irwin’s Mad Hatter’s tea party-inspired costumes.

The second work is the premiere of Beau Dean Riley Smith and Daniel Riley’s Miyagan, a slightly more abstract narrative inspired by Wiradjuri stories. The work is about the pair’s complex family ties — they’re cousins — and it’s full of both celebratory full ensemble moments and darkness.

The ensemble work is truly stunning as the dancers swarm around each other, close to the ground, like flocks of birds, and the hand-stitched emu feather hoods worn by one half of the cast are imposing and creeping.

The score is composed by popular dance musician Paul Mac, who uses electronic sounds at a variety of tempos with indigenous influences strewn through.

The second act is made up entirely of a new, story-driven work by Stephen Page, which tells several anecdotes from the life of Yolngu artist Nyapanyapa Yunupingu. The piece begins with the story of how Yunupingu was badly gored by a buffalo in the 1970s, with Waangenga Blanco stepping into the role of the beast.

Elma Kris plays Nyapanyapa and is the perfect guide through the extraordinary landscapes across which these stories take place. It’s a strong dramatic performance — she captures Nyapanyapa’s sense of wonderment and fear as she discovers more and more of the world.

In fact, the whole ensemble get the opportunity to flex their dramatic muscles in a variety of different roles, from bush apples to a bunch of enthusiastic bush dancers.

All of the creative team are required to work across a range of styles as the stories evolve, but it’s Jacob Nash’s sets which stand out most as vividly realised stage versions of Yunupingu’s artworks.

If you’re a long-time Bangarra audience member, this is a brilliant celebration of all the company has stood for over Stephen Page’s 25 years as artistic director, as well as a bold look towards the future. And if you’ve had Bangarra on your periphery but somehow never been to a show, this is a great opportunity to see the full breadth of this entirely unique company’s capabilities.

[box]OUR land people stories is at the Sydney Opera House until July 9 and then tours to Perth, Canberra, Brisbane and Melbourne. Featured image: Bangarra Ensemble – Nyapanyapa – Photo by Jhuny Boy-Borja [/box]

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