Bennelong. Bangarra Dance Theatre. Choreography: Stephen Page. Music: Steve Francis. Design: Jacob Nash, Jennifer Irwin, Nick Schlieper. Canberra Theatre. Until August 5. 6275 2700 or canberratheatrecentre.com.au.
In Bangarra's latest show, Bennelong, Stephen Page, as choreographer and creative storyteller, has taken as a starting point the life of Wongal man, Woollarawarre Bennelong, born in the Sydney area in the 1760s. He has then selected episodes from his life and woven them into a compelling, often heart-rending piece of dance theatre.
Bennelong was captured in 1789 on the orders of Governor Arthur Phillip, was absorbed into the colonial life of Sydney, learnt to speak English, was taken to England in 1792 and returned to Sydney a few years later. But Page rewrites the history we, as white people, have received of Bennelong as a kind of ambassador and an example of the apparent potential of assimilation. He shows him as a tormented soul, caught between two cultures but feeling ultimately that he belonged to neither.
It isn't always easy viewing and every episode we see on stage seems to generate a different emotion. There's a sense of horror in Onslaught when sections of the Aboriginal population are wiped out by smallpox. There's a sense of shock in Responding as assimilation is attempted through the donning of Western clothing. There's a feeling of discomfort in Crown as we watch Bennelong interacting with British high society after he arrives in London, and unease in Repatriation when we see ongoing efforts to repatriate bones and spirits of those Indigenous people who had died overseas.
As Bennelong, Beau Dean Riley Smith gave an absolutely thrilling performance, and nowhere more so than in the final episode, 1813 / People of the Land, (Bennelong died in 1813) in which we see him as a tormented, tortured man unable to reconcile his situation and make peace with himself. But the entire cast danced the feisty choreography of Page with strength and commitment. They are a huge credit to Page, his team, and themselves.
As we have come to expect from Bangarra, the collaborative elements of music, design and lighting are visually and aurally stunning. The score was largely the work of Steve Francis but it was peppered throughout by snippets of music and song from other composers – Haydn, for example, as Bennelong attends a ball in London with the cream of British society. Some song and spoken words have also been integrated into the score. The voices come from the dancers, the dramaturg Alana Valentine, cultural consultant Matthew Doyle and others. The originality of the sound produced is exceptional.
Bennelong is a truly dramatic and gripping piece of dance theatre. It is perhaps the strongest and most compelling work to have emerged from Bangarra in its almost 30-year history. Its message of a man struggling to live between two cultures continues to resonate today.