Dark Emu. Bangarra Dance Theatre. Choreographers: Stephen Page, Yolande Brown and Daniel Riley and the dancers. Composer: Stephen Francis. Dramaturg: Alana Valentine. Original book by Bruce Pascoe. Canberra Theatre, Canberra Theatre Centre, until July 28. canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 62752700.
Bangarra Dance Theatre's new work, Dark Emu, sets out to challenge the "hunter-gatherer" myth of pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians.
It was inspired by Bunurong man Bruce Pascoe's award-winning book of the same name, and choreographed by Bangarra's artistic director, Stephen Page, along with Yolande Brown and former Canberran Daniel Riley, with input from members of the company.
Page says Pascoe's research showed that far from being just hunter-gatherers, the Indigenous people had their own sophisticated systems of agriculture, fishing and land care across the continent.
"He was fascinated by the relationship Aboriginal people had with the land and they way they would work with agriculture," Page says.
"For example, kangaroo grass was a domestic staple: the grain of the grass was ground down and made into flour."
European explorers would record their observations of Indigenous farming practices they encountered. However, the colonists persisted in applying their own agricultural and other food-producing methods rather than learning from what they saw of the activities of the people who had lived on the land for tens of thousands of years. Pascoe drew on these written accounts in writing his book, providing a fresh interpretation and perspective.
Pascoe came to a performance of Bangarra's previous production, Bennelong, and Page talked to him about using the book as the basis for a dance work to both educate and entertain people about this little-known aspect of the past.
"The rest is history."
The company consulted with Pascoe and worked with writer Alana Valentine as dramaturg to decide which aspects of the book to focus on and to develop the work.
Riley has been with Bangarra for 12 years, working as both a dancer and more recently, also as a choreographer. He will again combine both roles in Dark Emu.
Since he has always performed in the works he has choreographed, he has never been able to view one of his pieces live.
"I only get to watch the performances on video," he says.
Still, he appreciates the positive feedback he receives from audience members and the opportunities to educate people about Indigenous culture as well as entertain them.
Riley says Pascoe's book is "a powerful, very well researched, historical piece of writing that goes about demonstrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander First Nations weren't just hunter-gatherers standing around holding a spear with one foot standing on the other.
"They had a complex series of agricultural, aquacultural and land practices that went on before colonisation."
Dark Emu runs continuously and unfolds in a series of segments beginning with Dark Spirit in the Sky, followed by Ceremony of Seed Page and other evocations of Indigenous practices. In the middle come darker moments with Crushed by Ignorance, Bowls of Mourning and Tramped by Indifference but there's a Rebirth Ritual and further displays of knowledge and trust before the climactic massacre in Smashed by Colonisation. The work finishes on an uplifting note with Resilence of Culture and Balame, in which the spirit of resilience and hope sings up the land.
Describing the creative process, Riley says he, Page and Brown "were really all in the room at the same time except if something was rolling along happily" in which case the two less involved in the particular section would do something else.
Riley says one of the elements he particularly enjoyed working with was fire management - how Indigenous people worked with fire, controlling and using it for their own purposes.
"Today people are so fearful of bushfires, of fire bringing fear and destruction, but it doesn't have to be that way if it's managed properly."
Fires would be systematically focused in certain places at certain times of the year, the burning-off used to facilitate new growth.
"They were ahead of their time."
He was also fascinated by the Brewarinna Fish Traps. Estimated to be about 4000 years old, they form an network of rock weirs and pools that stretches for 500 metres along the riverbed. The traps were used to catch fish as they swam upstream.
"It's a simple way of working with the elements the First Nation groups knew so well," Riley says.
"I like the idea of waiting, the building of rocks and waiting for things to come to you."
This wasn't a "fast food", he says, but required patience, and the trap network was "a beautiful thing ... very measured, cool and quiet".
Translating concepts such as these into evocative dance movements, full of symbolism, is a challenge but one Riley and his colleagues have faced by, he says asking questions such as "What is the cycle of the elements?" and considering the relationship between the land and Indigenous people.
"We're connecting elements and ideas in an abstract way."