Bangarra Dance Theatre's latest show, lore, follows the company's long-held policy of respecting the traditions of the Torres Strait Islanders as well as those of the Aboriginal people of the Australian mainland. The program opens with I.B.I.S, choreographed by senior Bangarra dancers Waangenga Blanco and Deborah Brown, both of Torres Strait Islander heritage. They are making their main-stage debuts as choreographers.
My curiosity was instantly aroused by the name I.B.I.S. With its stops between letters, it clearly wasn't about the popular hotel chain or even about a particular kind of wading bird. Blanco and Brown tell me, amid much laughter, that I.B.I.S is a chain of stores scattered around the Torres Strait Islands and in Cape York, and that the name stands for Islanders Board of Industry and Service.
An I.B.I.S store is much more than a supermarket. It does sell all kinds of produce, much of it local, but the stores are also where inhabitants meet and chat, do their banking, collect and send mail and in general socialise with others in the community. They are a hub for the small communities of the Torres Strait Islands.
"It was our artistic director, Stephen Page, who suggested the idea of making a work that focused on the I.B.I.S stores," Brown says.
"In 2008, we were visiting Torres Strait and consulting with elders there. Stephen was fascinated with I.B.I.S, especially with the frozen food cabinets. As well as containing imported frozen food, those cabinets often held a large catch from the ocean, which had been made by local fishermen who would eventually use it for their own community purposes."
Blanco continues: "If a family has a big event, such as a funeral, to cater for, they have to stock up with food to feed the extended family and their storage at home isn't enough, so they use the frozen food cabinets in their local I.B.I.S store."
As Blanco and Brown began to develop I.B.I.S, they started to focus on the social aspects of the stores and the final work reflects a community spirit, and the society's ties to the land and ocean.
In addition, I.B.I.S touches on contemporary issues of sustainability and climate change. On a visit in 2014 to Mer Island, where Brown and Blanco have family ties, they saw a change in the ecosystem. It was even noticeable in the short space of time since the 2008 visit. Fewer fish were being caught and families had concerns about rising sea levels.
"We tackle these contemporary issues, but in a kind of romantic way," Brown says, "but we do address them, as they are significant issues for the community."
The second work on the lore program is Sheoak. It comes from Frances Rings, a descendant of the Kokatha peoples of the Eyre Peninsula. Rings' reputation as a choreographer is already well established and Sheoak is her seventh work for Bangarra. It is named for the native casuarina, the sheoak or "grandmother tree", with its feathery branches and its sturdy, deep-rooted trunk.
The tree survives in the harshest regions of Australia, although some species are now endangered. Rings found her inspiration for Sheoak while attending an event at her son's school during NAIDOC (National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee) Week. There she listened to an elder talking about the sheoak and the many uses it had in Aboriginal communities.
"The tree is many things," Rings says. "It's medicine, it's weapons, it's tools, it's shelter. It's comforting, it's significant, it holds the lore. It holds stories, and we want them to be around for many generations to come."
For Rings the tree's roots represent the past, its trunk the present and its branches the future. It becomes not simply an object in the environment, but references the changing lives of generations of Aboriginal people.
Choreographically the two works reflect the different dance styles of Torres Strait and Aboriginal communities. Brown and Blanco suggest that, as a result of the inter-island trading that has been part of Torres Strait Island society for centuries, Torres Strait dance also involves more storytelling, with movement often taking a secondary place.
"Our dances tell the story of island life," Brown says, "and our dance vocabulary has been influenced by styles from Papua New Guinea and Polynesia."
While Rings has been the sole choreographer working on Sheoak, I.B.I.S is jointly choreographed by Brown and Blanco, who also perform in the work.
"We had respect for each other's knowledge, and there was a strong sense of trust between us," Blanco says. "Deb did the female sections, I did the male ones, and we shared the rest."
He does admit, though, that it was hard sometimes to step back and manage his choreographic responsibilities. "I wanted to be dancing in all the sections."
Musically, too, the program offers an insight into differences between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural traditions. Scores for both works were newly crafted during the choreographic process. David Page created the music for Sheoak with the assistance of colleague Justin Harrington Briggs, a new approach for Page, who nevertheless wanted to ensure that his music supported the storytelling and maintained the Bangarra signature that he has developed over his years of composing for the company.
Steve Francis wrote the score for I.B.I.S and tapped into the percussive nature of traditional Torres Strait music. He incorporated the sound of traditional instruments, including that of the hour-glass-shaped drum, the warup. His score is, however, an environmental soundscape that Brown describes as "a lush sound replicating the music of the ocean, the whistle of birds and the rustle of coconut trees". In the spirit of the Torres Strait Islands, I.B.I.S also incorporates live singing.
Lore has been curated by artistic director Stephen Page and its dance stories of land and sea celebrate a body of tradition and knowledge that has been passed on from person to person. The process is enhanced with input from community elders who act as cultural consultants. With I.B.I.S, for example, Aunty Betty Tekahika Mabo came into the Bangarra studios to teach a particular Torres Strait dance, and Peggy Misi, a former Bangarra dancer, taught the language for some of chants that were being incorporated into the score.
All three choreographers whose work is represented on this program acknowledge that Bangarra is a collection of unique artists and that this varied heritage feeds into the work made at Bangarra.
"Each individual that walks in the door at Bangarra brings a part of their history, a part of their family and their community," Rings says. They all also acknowledge the power of their lore, the need to protect it, and that the final message is one of hope for the future.
Brown also gives the program a delightful Canberra twist when speaking of her and Blanco's hopes for I.B.I.S. Both she and Blanco were a little taken aback by the cold Canberra weather when we spoke.
"I hear it has been snowing down there," Blanco said.
"But we hope," Brown said, "that Canberra audiences will feel the warmth of the Torres Strait and will want to put on a sarong."
* Lore: I.B.I.S and Sheoak. Bangarra Dance Theatre. Canberra Theatre, July 9-11. Bookings canberratheatrecentre.com.au
** Join Bangarra artistic director, Stephen Page, as he talks about his career, the formation of Bangarra and how it has developed, how its artists have been nurtured and developed over the years, the latest work and future work interspersed with video elements from early work as well as especially featuring lore. Sunday, July 5, Parliament House. Free. Register at canberratheatrecentre.com.au or turn up in on the day.