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Animated Edition - Autumn 2006
Critical faculties
Donald Hutera goes down under
I'd never been Down Under before, so when the invitation came to fly from London to Sydney last June to see Swan Lake On Ice I said yes. The trip was a better-than-nothing five and half days, during the middle of which I ditched the frozen birds and nipped down to Canberra to catch a performance by Bangarra Dance Theatre.

Founded in 1989, Bangarra is Australia's premier indigenous dance company. Composed almost exclusively of aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders, it has since 1991 been run by choreographer Stephen Page. Due to the topsi-turviness of our respective schedules, I actually met up with him in London (where he was busy promoting Bangarra's upcoming UK tour) the very day I was headed off to his homeland.

Born to aboriginal parents in Brisbane in 1965, Page claims to be the fairest of twelve siblings and the most politically motivated. 'My mother and father always say I'm the blackest one of them all. I got kicked out of one high school because I complained that there was no aboriginal history in our curriculum. I was very rebellious.'

Tucked inside Page's CV is a pretty eclectic aesthetic. He trained at a traditional dance college in Sydney, also learning a myriad of modern forms, including Graham. He was for three years a member of Sydney Dance Company, until the pull of his roots became too strong to ignore. Apart from Bangarra duties, Page directed the indigenous segments of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games and the 2004 Adelaide Festival of the Arts. Recently he and the company collaborated on a hit double bill with the Australian Ballet.

Bangarra's production Bush will have toured the UK this autumn as part of an extensive showcase of Australian arts called Undergrowth. It was inspired by traditional Dreamtime songs, dances and creation stories that were, Page explains, 'stylised in a crossover, contemporary fusion kind of way' typical of the company. A string of ten or so vivid scenes are linked by the earth-mother presence of Kathy Balngayngu Marika, a member of a powerful cultural family from northeast Arnhem Land in the northern territory. Page and his brothers - David, a composer, and Russell, a dancer who died in 2002 - have known Marika and her clan since they were in their teens. 'They were always interested in how we were surviving in the modern city, and we were wondering how they were still evolving their cultural ceremonies in the bush. Our performance is really about the many years we've been working with them, and a celebration of what they've been able to give to Bangarra.'

Page is articulate about his country's unresolved historical, racial and socio-political issues. 'Australia is a collective grid of cultures. It romanticises aboriginal identity, but it's never respected it. A lot of land, language and stories were taken away from aboriginal people, and the government's never really taken the blame.' He's developed a balanced perspective about it. 'It's just the observation of two different cultures. It's about people coming into someone's land and going, 'I don't understand this' and getting frustrated, and therefore it's deemed to be bad. It's what we're suffering today in the 21st century.'

A similar divisiveness, says Page, manifests itself in relation to Bangarra. He pegs it as the dilemma of black politics. 'You get people throwing spears in your back, going, 'Why is Bangarra getting everything? Why's it running with the aboriginal flag?" And yet they'll see a Bangarra show and be crying, saying, "This is great healing."' How to explain the contradiction? 'It's part of our complex culture, something you accept and can't necessarily understand. I try, but I had to let go. Now every time I go back to an aboriginal community I make sure that I'm a three year-old child again. I just shut up, listen and learn. It's the best way.'

Page's notion of 'giving back to the community' is very roll-up-your-sleeves and hands-on. 'We became Australia's leading indigenous company, and all of a sudden we were performing for a lot of white people in the mainstream. My brothers and I would go, "Who's this for?"' As an antidote Bangarra tours regionally and rurally, often working with health departments. 'We're like this band-aid, like nurses and doctors. We'd camp out for two weeks in the central desert where there might be a petrol-sniffing problem in the community. We'd give them workshops and put a performance on in the riverbed. I'd take all the costumes in a suitcase, and lay yoga mats down in the red dirt so the dancers could do their modern movement. They'd all go, 'You're totally mad.' I'd go, "No. You can do this in New York, and here as well."

'I'm not one of those obsessive modern dance choreographers,' Page sums up. 'I don't have enough discipline, and I worry too much about the cultural and political sides of things. But I can tell a story. And sometimes I get so fascinated by the traditional songs that I go, "This doesn't need much movement at all. It's all there in the power of the music. Let's just turn the lights off and let people use their imaginations."'

Donald Hutera writes regularly for The Times, Time Out, Dance Europe, Dance Now and many other publications. He edited the autumn 2003 and Summer 2005 edition of Animated, and writes Critical Faculties as a regular column.


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Animated: Autumn 2006