The story of cultural exchange between the colonial astronomer and polymath Lieutenant William Dawes and the Dharug teenager Patyegarang is now well-known. Kate Grenville’s historical novel, The Lieutenant, is about the relationship and Bangarra’s new work from Patyegarang’s own perspective has already grabbed much attention. It makes you wonder why we never learnt back in school about this optimistic but brief first example of reconciliation.
Patyegarang taught Dawes her language and, powerfully, on a site just outside the door of where we sit in the iconic Sydney Opera House. Indeed, as Bangarra celebrates its 25th anniversary, this is the first time that artistic director Stephen Page has turned to the company’s home, and the Eora people, for a local story.
Patyegarang is also probably the closest Bangarra has got to narrative dance. It teases us with an episodic telling of a story about which we’d like to know more; while straitjacketing the poetic abstraction of dance and descending into occasional pantomime. There’s the feeling that dramaturg Alana Valentine could have told us a lot more of interest.
This dancing dilemma matches the other great creative tension within Bangarra, between the transmission of culturally-approved traditional stories and dances, and creating a contemporary musical and choreographic voice.
Stephen Page at least has the support of his well-practiced creative team and, most notably, his brother and composer. David Page’s melodic, computerised synthesis of classical and indigenous instruments, with the soaring chanting of local language, has defined and driven Bangarra’s signature since David’s first Bangarra work, Praying Mantis Dreaming, back in 1993. An old cheap cassette of this score helped drive my car around Sydney the rest of the decade.
Page’s music again propels the dozen distinct episodes of Patyegarang from Dawes’ arrival on the First Fleet and his first contact with the elder Ngalgear (Waangenga Blanco), surrounded by Land Spirits.
In his seventh work for Bangarra, designer Jacob Nash delivers a vertical contoured landscape background which, lit by Nick Schlieper, throbs with ochre sunshine. When fighting breaks out between the male couples of redcoats and locals, a huge red cross descends, rather heavy-handedly, across this visionary landscape.
Constant collaborator, costume designer Jennifer Irwin is also back with her stunning textured costumes, sometimes shimmering in the light or at other times refracting it with strong land-associated natural fibres.
As the only non-indigenous performer, guest dancer Thomas Greenfield plays Dawes, and is a strongly muscular and observant presence throughout. Curiously, he dances, not as you’d expect, in some European idiom of his own, but in the distinctive choreographic style of the other Bangarra dancers.
This style, especially when David Page turns up the musical dreaming, can produce spine-tingling moments of choreographic excitement. In the Night Sky episode Patyegarang shares with the astronomer her cultural knowledge and the surrounding female ensemble soars into beautiful spirits.
Elsewhere, the Bangarra dancing signature of bent knees, constant ground rolls and angular arms easily becomes repetitive. To my ignorant eye, I could see no new choreographic impact from Page working with a traditional community and families different from his usual mentors in northern Australia.
Jasmin Sheppard is both beguiling and authoritative as the strong-willed young Patyegarang. Dance of course is burdened – and enhanced – by the inevitable sexualisation of attractive bodies. Historical records about this central relationship give no clue to its intimacy but Stephen Page appears to make sex part of their story. Perhaps that’s why we never learnt about it at school!
Older dancers Blanco and Elma Kris bring a dignity and gravitas to the scenes of traditional indigenous pre-contact life. Again, bedecked with spears, smoking sleeves of bark or a hefty canoe, these scenes alternate between pantomime and truly dynamic pounding scenes of excitement.
The tension within Bangarra between adherence to traditional storytelling and contemporary interpretation has in the past been the source of its artistic genius. But especially in such traditional indigenous settings, you wish for Page and his team to let the chorographic imagination really rip, informed now by other forces.
Yet moments still linger. A blackened girl and white mud-caked boy standing centre stage on boxes, are washed down respectively by Patyegareng and Dawes, washing them both into the neutral brown of common humanity.