Bangarra stand on solid ground with Dark Emu
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Bangarra stand on solid ground with Dark Emu

Waangenga Blanco in Dark Emu.

Waangenga Blanco in Dark Emu.

Photo: Karleen Minney

Bangarra Dance Theatre's works play the largest theatres in Australia, but the company always tries to return the work to Country.

There's the “city version” that plays the Sydney Opera House or Arts Centre Melbourne, “and then we take the same show, and put the same sweat into it, performing on sheets of masonite on a football field in Yirrkala”, says choreographer and dancer Yolande Brown.

All of Bangarra's work is driven by this connection to Country, she says. “We're so used to living framed by mortar and smog. That's often the frame within which we walk through our days. That's why it's so beautiful that the company spends time on Country, because we do get to sink our feet into the soil and reconnect to what's beating underneath the pavement.”

Dancers Rikki Mason and Elma Kris.

Dancers Rikki Mason and Elma Kris.

Photo: Daniel Boud

The company's latest production is all about that relationship with the land, but it draws inspiration from an unlikely source. Bruce Pascoe's remarkable 2014 book Dark Emu dismantled the myth of pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians as hunter-gatherers lacking sophisticated agricultural practices. Pascoe often drew on the words of the many European explorers who documented these practices but which were virtually erased from the official record.

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Yolande Brown, Bangarra Dance Theatre.

Yolande Brown, Bangarra Dance Theatre.

Photo: Supplied

Pascoe was at the opening of Bangarra's last production, Bennelong. “We were talking in a corner and he in a cheeky way said 'imagine doing a dance response to Dark Emu',” says the company's artistic director, Stephen Page. But what began as a joke became something else when Page began to make his way through the book.

“What got me was how comprehensively someone had spent time compiling these explorers' accounts, and just how profoundly they were written ... It was the wonderment and fascination in their observations - how they wrote it all down quite comprehensively, and then it was still ignored. As I was going through I could feel the little sparks of Bruce's frustration about what was ignored and yet what he found was so fascinating.”

Page knew from the outset that a literal adaptation of this piece of historical non-fiction wasn't the Bangarra way. “I wanted to tap into the more emotional side of what he's talking about. How do we become the spirit of the land? What is the way blackfellas look at the sky differently from whitefellas? What's the difference between blackfella time and whitefella time?”

Bangarra Dance Theatre artistic director Stephen Page.

Bangarra Dance Theatre artistic director Stephen Page.

Photo: James Brickwood

Page was touring Bennelong and creating a work for the Commonwealth Games, so he brought in Brown and fellow choreographer Daniel Riley to create the work with him. Brown was already passionate about environment and sustainability but found Pascoe's writing rife with new insights.

“A lot of Indigenous people do grow up knowing about their country and about the land management practices,” she says, “[but] I didn't personally so I really loved reading about all the ingenious and well-developed methods and ideas that were in this book.”

Indigenous author Bruce Pascoe.

Indigenous author Bruce Pascoe.

Photo: James Alcock

The resulting production taps into the “wonderment and fascination” evoked by thousands of generations of people working with the land and sea, says Brown. “That's the driving force of the piece but it's also the driving force of the people where all this knowledge comes from. When you stop and listen to Country it's that energy that comes from Country.”

As a performing artist that's what you do. You transcend who you are as a person. You're a shapeshifter

Yolande Brown, choreographer, Bangarra Dance Theatre
Bangarra dancer  Yolanda Lowatta.

Bangarra dancer Yolanda Lowatta.

Photo: Supplied

That wonderment is counterbalanced by the centuries of deep knowledge overlooked by white Australians who insisted on the myth of terra nullius. As The Sydney Morning Herald said in its review of the production, it's “beautiful to look at but tragic in its theme”.

Dark Emu is more abstract than much of Bangarra's work, says Brown, but is driven by an emotional trajectory that carries audiences with it. The company worked closely with dramaturg and frequent collaborator Alana Valentine to shape the rhythm and flow of the production.

“Towards the end of the show you are left feeling like you are a thread within the universe - although a thread can be very significant,” says Brown. “If one thread breaks, the tension changes and it does affect the tapestry's weave. It's both small yet big. That's what we are as both individuals and a collective.”

That perspective is what allows the artists in Bangarra to envision works that are at home in both the loftiest theatres and a football field in Yirrkala. “As a performing artist that's what you do. You transcend who you are as a person. You're a shapeshifter.”

Dark Emu is at Arts Centre Melbourne, September 6 to 15.