Dance, Reviews, Stage

Ochres review (Carriageworks, Sydney)

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How rarely we revive and reappraise our landmark works of the Australian stage and contemporary dance. Stephen Page and his young Bangarra team created the inspirational Ochres in Sydney’s Redfern back in 1994. Now, 21 years on, they return to Redfern, to the vast bay at Carriageworks, to stage what has become Bangarra’s signature work.
The pressure once was surely on for new director Stephen and his brothers, composer David and principal dancer Russell; their first full length work, Praying Mantis Dreaming (1992), could have been judged a one-off success.
But that show was built on Stephen’s cultural links with the Yirrkala people of North East Arnhem Land, and notably with traditional dancer Djakapurra Munyarryun. Again, he put this imposing, thickset dancer at the centre of Ochres, with its focus now on country and traditional practices, and in 2015 Munyarryun is back again, older but with the same magnificent, still presence.
That 1995 debut of Ochres, with its follow-up rush of sell out tours around Australia and overseas, included other artists who became significant in indigenous performance — such asPage’s co-choreographer Bernadette Walong-Sene, his late brother and collaborator Russell, Frances Rings, Christine Anu, Lea Francis, Cynthia Lochard, Marilyn Miller, Kathryn Dunn and Vicki Van Hout. Original costume designer Jennifer Irwin and lighting man Joseph Mercurio are again back for this revival.
Manyarryun begins Ochres powerfully with a land cleansing, which is soon matched by another Bangarra elder, Torres Strait Islander Elma Kris who, on a dappled-lit hillock, paints herself white and prepares herself for the other women. Overlooking all is Jacob Nash’s sculptural form of huge bark shreds, always transforming under new light.
Ochres is divided into four parts — Yellow (women’s business), Black (men’s business), Red (relationships) and White (spiritual cleansing) — all swept through with stories of birth, hunting, courtship, breakdown and renewal.
Yellow is the slower of the four parts: the women are mostly grounded, legs akimbo as though in birth, or in actions of gathering, feeding or bathing. Once on their feet, Walong-Sene’s choreography unifies them more dynamically in stomping and retrieval.
Throughout Ochres, and surely a guiding drive for Stephen Page’s fusion of contemporary and traditional movement, is the music of David Page. Synthesised melodies, soaring into ballads or pop rhythms, are gloriously punctuated with song or chanting in language, clap-sticks, didgeridoo and a forest of native sounds. Back then in my car I had homemade cassettes of Praying Mantis Dreaming and Ochres, which I played till they died.
It’s hard to recall the original impact of the Page’s modern retelling of Aboriginal men preparing for the hunt, wiping their foreheads with protective ochre, disguised behind shrubs or crouching and rearing in animal mimicry. Over these young kangaroo/warriors, Munyarryun’s large white dusted form exudes authority.
While such dancing is more familiar to us now, Ochres introduced us then respectfully to traditional practices, to a dramatic evocation of country and fauna, and to a joyous translation of contemporary dance into stories and relationships which actually meant something.

Ochresweb - Bangarra 2015 - Tara Robertson - Photo by Edward Mulvihill 1
Tara Robertson Photo by Edward Mulvihill)

Only rarely did this restaged Ochres slip from dance excitement into leaf-waving pantomime, from a human and spiritual truth into the generalised stomping of sentimentalised old Aboriginal ways.
It’s Page’s storytelling, and his traditional connections, which mostly leaps over these traps. This is no more so than in his part, Red, co-choreographed with Bernadette Walong-Sene.
Red snapshots three heterosexual relationships, arcing through playfulness, teasing and sexual magnetism, and mostly souring into discord. The near jazz ballet is urgent and sexy, especially to David Page’s rhythmic and melodic score. A final chapter, with an older woman (Elma Kris) cradling a young sick boy (Daniel Riley) to health embodies beautifully tender movement.
The last climaxing part, White, sweeps quickly through many stories of spirit, country and human connection. The honoured meeting place of salt and freshwater is, for example, powerfully portrayed by the dancers as clashing waves, with some (unusually) held high above the others. The end with the dancers sitting tall amongst the shrubs, whether animal or human, staring out to us and the world beyond, is spell-binding.
Ochres 2015 Photo by Jhuny-Boy Borja 3 (1)
Photo by Jhuny-Boy Borja

Carriageworks Bay 17 is not an intimate arena, but Ochres stretched out to fill its wide playing area. And the many overseas tourists, who in Sydney are without any big window into Aboriginal arts and performance, left the space, each chatting enthusiastically in their own language.
[box]Main image: Djakapurra Munyarryun in Ochres. Photo by Jhuny-Boy Borja. Ochres is at Carriageworks, Redfern until December 5. [/box]

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