Date: July 14 2012
Frances Rings thinks certain landscapes can heal us. She's not referring to medicinal plants or the buildings we construct on them, but the contours and textures of certain geographies. She wonders whether we know of their power innately.
''People can't go down the beach without taking their shoes off, putting their feet in the sand or touching the water,'' she says. ''There's something that changes the spirit. Is it a medicine, is it healing, does it cleanse us? There's something [certain places] do to us. They remind us instinctively of who we are.''
Rings spent childhood camping trips in the Flinders Ranges, close to her Port Augusta home. Her father was German and endured a poor childhood in the aftermath of World War II.
His work often took him into the Nullarbor. He once had a job painting the old Marree Hotel, at the junction of the Oodnadatta and Birdsville tracks, near Lake Eyre. Through him, Rings developed her ''connection to country''. ''It wasn't from a cultural perspective or learning about my Aboriginal background. But [out bush] was my theatre. It was where I came alive.''
Rings has become an accomplished dancer, choreographer and TV presenter, but her work with the Bangarra Dance Theatre has reached the widest audience. She joined in 1993, became the resident choreographer in 2010 and created the acclaimed Artefact, part of the Earth & Sky program, the same year. Not long after, the artistic director, Stephen Page, invited her to create a full-length work exploring the Aboriginal view of landscape as a second skin; your country as an extension of your body. She had questions: ''What is this interconnection of spirit to place? Why is it so important not only to indigenous people, but everyone?''
Rings thought back to the Flinders Ranges terrain of her youth. Then she visited Lake Eyre. She was searching for a place to inspire a dance, to illustrate how geography influences mood and spirit. ''You hear so many stories and see images [of the lake], but it's not until you visit it that you begin to understand its power, its abstract beauty and its incredible presence,'' she says.
On her first trip, the lake was filled with water; on the second it was empty and glinted like a diamond-encrusted plain. She took a tour with Reg Dodd, an Arabunna elder, who led her to waterholes and sacred sites and told stories of his ancestors. She held stone tools and saw ancient paintings mapping secret waterways. Lake Eyre is ''one of the few places that hasn't had highways or mines built over the top of it,'' she says. ''Its history is still living, breathing and so alive.''
Rings brings the lake to life in Terrain, a work that incorporates both elements of the lake's physical landscape and figurative ideas of how we connect with nature when we escape our urban environments. ''I often wonder how to connect with my country when I'm in the city,'' Rings says. ''For many indigenous people it's a visceral connection; you look beyond the buildings and concrete and feel a sense of belonging. I wanted to explore the rituals Aboriginal people use to connect to country. How does it feel when the city falls away and you begin to hear and respond, let go of all of that angst and pent-up energy?''
In Rings's world, body language and expressions shift to mirror surroundings. She loves to study her aunts and sisters when they tell stories, ''the way they stand, use their hands, place them on their hips''. Their gestures represent ''home'' as much as her country, and she often sees them reflected in unexpected places. By the lake, they appeared in the contorted trunks of a cluster of trees; she imagined a crop of gnarled women waiting for the first rains. In this way, connection to place becomes a language of movement.
This notion of landscape as a second skin is central to every Aboriginal art form, whether it be theatre, dance, music or painting. But a spiritual affinity with nature is felt as keenly by non-indigenous Australians, albeit in a different way. So often now, however, it's a relationship sabotaged by debates about climate change, global warming, pollution, genetically modified foods, the way city skylines block sunlight - a bond sullied by feelings of guilt, dislocation and anxiety.
Can art that explores the vital connection between spirit and landscape remedy our growing disengagement from it, or at least remind us of a time when nature filled us with veneration, not fear?
Kamarra Bell-Wykes's Body Armour, which is on tour around Australia, explores bodies and their spiritual connection to place in a markedly different way. Presented by the Ilbijerri Theatre Company, it was commissioned by the Department of Health to spread awareness of hepatitis C. Its acclaimed predecessor, Chopped Liver, has been seen by 10,000 people in 150 Australian schools, communities and prisons.
Body Armour tells the story of three youths who meet at a health clinic as they wait for test results. Each has contracted the hepatitis virus through blood pacts, backyard tattoos and unsterilised body piercing. While the work doesn't extensively examine traditional indigenous processes of body scarification and initiation rituals, the echo of them is always present.
''You risk going into cliche when you make theatre [about those topics] and I wanted to make a work that all teenagers could relate to, whether they were Aboriginal or not,'' Bell-Wykes says. She was interested in why many youngsters use body art to express themselves, whether to look different or as a bonding process. ''These traditional practices [are] reinvented by young people who apparently have no sense of culture, but for whom a sense of community is still really important. There's a natural instinct to do that stuff.''
Bell-Wykes has tattoos marking significant life chapters - places she's been, people she's lost, experiences that have shaped her, reminders of where she's from. She's drawn to the idea that when people survive traumas and seek answers, ''that stuff doesn't stay inside you, it finds a way to come out and express itself on your body''.
In the play, she examines the tattoo rituals of the Marquesas Islands, which involve ceremonies of song, dance and designs that reference the local environment. She correlates this with the experiences of a young hip-hop aficionado, for whom music, body art and identity go hand in hand. She highlights the contemporary incarnations of ancient practices, along with the universal yearning for a sense of belonging.
''I do think young Aboriginals gravitate towards cultures [such as Polynesian] that in some way echo their own … Are they marking their own rite of passage? Where does the longing to re-enact these ancient initiation ceremonies come from?''
Terrain opens at the Opera House on Wednesday. Body Armour tours NSW from July 31.
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