Bangarra Dance Theatre has a long history of performing in Canberra. Over time the works we have seen from this acclaimed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander company have always been powerful and moving evocations of Indigenous culture and history - stories of the land, the people and the connections between them. The works have consistently been visually stunning in both set and costume design. Choreographically they have looked back to an ancient dancing heritage while also embodying a contemporary dance vocabulary. In addition, they have always been danced to original scores or soundscapes.
This year Canberra audiences will see a mixed bill called OUR land people stories. The program consists of three very different works, one by Stephen Page, Bangarra's artistic director, and two by emerging choreographers from within the company. Miyagan (Our family), for example, has been jointly choreographed by Daniel Riley and Beau Dean Riley Smith, both company dancers. Both are also Wiradjuri men and are cousins. They can trace their lineage to a common great-great-grandfather, Jack Riley, who lived on the Talbragar Reserve just out of Dubbo in the central west of NSW. But Daniel Riley grew up in Canberra and says he regards the national capital as his home town.
"Canberra is where I developed my identity as a man," he says. "I went to Telopea Park High School and Narrabundah College. I danced with QL2 and it was there that I realised that dancing could be a career. The Canberra Theatre is also where I first saw Bangarra and was bowled over by the pride the dancers took in their work and their heritage."
Beau Dean Riley Smith on the other hand spent his youth moving between Dubbo and Culburra Beach on the NSW south coast. But after his graduation from the college of the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association, he was recommended as a candidate for the Heath Ledger Young Artists Oral History Project established at the National Film and Sound Archive. His thoughts and aspirations for his future career in dance were recorded in 2013, the year he joined Bangarra, and are now part of the NFSA's Heath Ledger Collection. In the interview he confessed that he had always thought of choreography as something he would like to take on and declared that he would give himself three years in Bangarra to achieve his goal. Well those three years have just passed and now audiences have the opportunity to see exactly what Smith has achieved.
"It is amazing when I look back," Smith says. "When I have a goal I work hard to achieve it. But I have been blessed to have been given opportunities. I had an idea for a work about family and kinship in my first year with Bangarra. I spoke to Stephen [Page] and he spoke to Dan [Riley] about a collaboration. The process from there has been very exciting."
Miyagan explores kinship, a deeply embedded and complex part of Aboriginal life, which Riley describes as "a multi-layered tapestry of responsibilities that spread beyond family to nature and include a sense of belonging to country." In particular, Miyagan takes Wiradjuri kinship, with its matrilineal system in which family relationships are traced through the female line, as its starting point. Working with cultural consultants from the Wiradjuri nation, Aunty Di and Aunty Lynn, Riley and Smith have made a five-part work that refers, and pays homage and respect, to both broad and specific aspects of the Wiradjuri kinship system. On one level it looks at a day in the life of the inhabitants of the Talbragar Reserve in the 1920s, around the time Jack Riley was there. On another level, it examines Wiradjuri totems including the brush tail possum, the totem of the inhabitants of the Dubbo region: in one section of Miyagan, the choreography gives the dancers the occasion to wear possum tails around their wrists. Then the score, by Paul Mac, includes the screeching sounds of a flock of sulphur-crested white cockatoos making their way noisily across the Dubbo skies, sounds which Riley and Smith heard and recorded while on a recent visit to Talbragar.
As well as paying homage to their family ties to the Wiradjuri nation, with Miyagan Riley and Smith are keen to show the importance of kinship in Bangarra Dance Theatre. They like to think of Bangarra as a kinship system in itself, "a company of 17 blackfellas together all the time," says Riley.
Sitting alongside Miyagan on the Bangarra program are Macq, choreographed by Jasmin Sheppard, also a dancer with the company, and Nyapanyapa, choreographed by Stephen Page. Macq is a reworking of Sheppard's first choreographic piece, which was performed in 2013 as part of Dance Clan 3. It is her response to the Appin Massacre of 1816, which involved the Dharawal people of the coastal areas south of Sydney; colonial military forces under the direction of Governor Lachlan Macquarie, after whom the work is named; and white settlers in the region. To tell the story, Sheppard consulted with knowledge holders of Dharawal stories, Aunty Frances Bodkin and Uncle Gavin Andrews, and read through Macquarie's personal diaries and other archival material held in various collecting institutions in Sydney. Macquarie's words, taken directly from his diaries, are spoken during the work, making Macq a powerful piece of dance drama.
Stephen Page drew inspiration for his Nyapanyapa from the art of Yolngu woman Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, in particular from her work Incident at Mutpi, which is based on a dramatic incident in her life when, as a young woman, she was attacked and seriously injured by a water buffalo. The tree bark painting, with an accompanying video recounting the event, won her the Wandjuk Marika Three Dimensional Art Prize in 2008.
Page says of the artist: "Painting for her is a meditative process, a place of reflection embedded in her life and history. It reminds me of why I started dancing as a young man - because I had to, because it was my calling, and because it took me to a safe and spiritual place."
OUR land people stories is dedicated to David Page (1961−2016).
OUR land people stories by Bangarra Dance Theatre is on at Canberra Theatre Centre from July 28 to 30. Bookings: canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 6275 2700.