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The Spirit of Bennelong

I lie low. I nestle in the soil. Are you a fighter? A collaborator? A victim? A survivor? An idealist? A realist? Some days I feel like I am Bennelong. I am Bennelong.


Bangarra Dance Theatre: “Bennelong”


Playhouse, Arts Centre, Melbourne, September 7, 2017


Gracia Haby

Bangarra Dance Theatre's “Bennelong.” Photograph by Vishal Pandey

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At first impression, Stephen Page’s new work “Bennelong” is about the history and legacy of Woollarawarre Bennelong (c. 1764–1813), the man who carries five names (also Baneelon, Wogultrowey, Wolarrabarrey, Boinba, Bundebunda). Before a large suspended ring, evocative of a smoking ceremony (sensitively, economically designed by Jacob Nash), 'The Birth of Bennelong' is told. The women's circle, all loose with its collective weight directed towards the floor, the men's, by comparison, pointed, angular, and elevated. To know the story: read the bodies. Every surface, a canvas, a means of unbroken communication. With native plants in hand, burning to ward off bad spirits, the hardest terrain is life giving.

A Wangul man of the Eora Nation people, Bennelong lived during the European settlement/invasion in 1788. He was captured and shackled in 1789, along with a Cadigal man, Colebee, on Governor Arthur Phillip’s orders by Lieutenant William Bradley at Manly Cove. Lieutenant Bradly wrote of the men's abduction as being “by far the most unpleasant service I was ever ordered to Execute…. [The] crying & screaming of the women and children together with the situation of the two miserable wretches in our possession was really a most distressing scene; they were much terrified.”[note]Lieutenant William Bradley referenced on “Finding Bennelong: Who really was Woollarawarre Bennelong?” web site,, accessed September 8, 2017[/note] Two randomly selected go-betweens to assist with the assimilation process, Colebee escaped, while Bennelong remained in the colony. In frock coats from the New World, Bennelong would later accompany Governor Phillip to London (1792–95), with Wangul man, Yemmerawanye, and four “lively and healthy” kangaroos [Lloyd’s Evening Post, 1793].

Tara Robertson, Beau Dean Riley Smith and Kaine Sultan-Babij perform “Bennelong” by Bangarra Dance Theatre. Photograph by Vishal Pandey

Bennelong’s life was documented in the journal entries and letters of the British officers placed in charge of the new colony, including Governor Phillip, Marine Lieutenant Watkin Tench, Lieutenant William Bradley, and others. With inquisitive eyes meeting the viewer, tooth and bone ornaments in his hair, annotated in a ribbon of brown ink, “Native name Ben-nel-long, as painted when angry after Botany Bay Colebee was wounded,”[note]“Native name Ben-nel-long, as painted when angry after Botany Bay Colebee was wounded,” part of the Watling collection, housed at the Natural History Museum, U.K.,[/note] his portrait was drawn by First Fleet artists. And since then his story has been interpreted and reinterpreted by historians and novelists alike. In his honour, his name even became a place, Bennelong Point, where the Sydney Opera House now fans its wings. Businesses and institutions bear his name, a restaurant too.

At its core, Page’s new work “Bennelong” is actually about the man Woollarawarre Bennelong. Man, not the myth, nor saint neither. As cultural consultant to“Bennelong,” Matthew Doyle describes, Bennelong, the man, was someone who “took on that role or responsibility of being the intermediary between his people and Governor Phillip,”[note]Matthew Doyle quoted, “Indigenous trailblazer Woollarawarre Bennelong’s story brought to life by Bangarra Dance Theatre,” Tracy Bowden, 7.30, July 20, 2017,, accessed September 9, 2017[/note] a man who was in every sense caught between two cultures and who, in the end, belonged to neither one nor the other. And it is confronting and heartbreaking in equal measure.

Bennelong as resistor, as assimilator, as victim, Bennelong, then, is very much Bennelong now. And this is what drives “Bennelong,” Page’s twenty-fourth work with Bangarra, for though it is historical, it is very much present day; and though it covers a historical figure, he was very much of flesh and bone. “Bennelong” asks, ‘who are today’s Bennelongs?’ negotiating the space between two cultures, two worlds. For artistic director and choreographer Page, “we are still trying to work out this relationship…. Bennelong is very much with us.”[note]Stephen Page quoted within “Bangarra’s Bennelong review—Aboriginal warrior’s conflict portrayed in dramatic suspense,” Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore, The Guardian, July 1, 2017,, accessed September 10, 2017[/note]

The first major work since the death of Bangarra’s musical director, David Page, the spirits of both Bennelong, and David Page guides it. Then and now, interwoven, for all time.

Some days I feel like I am Bennelong. I am Bennelong.

For Beau Dean Riley Smith, in the title role, he is “trying to pay homage to [Bennelong’s] spirit and ignite that flame and his soul and give him heart.”[note]Beau Dean Riley Smith, “Bangarra takes on the story of Benelong,” 7.30, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, July 20, 2017,, accessed September 10, 2017[/note]

And after the community night, at the Melbourne opening night performance of “Bennelong” that is exactly what he did, proving the embodiment of the message: respect; have respect for one another.[note]“I guess the message is about respecting, having respect for one another. Really that’s what it comes down to,” Beau Dean Riley Smith, “Bangarra takes on the story of Benelong,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, July 20, 2017[/note] The historical narrative is but a thread within this work, this is primarily about how it feels. Smith’s Bennelong is a torn and tragic figure, as he spins and is hurled about the stage, with each rotation unspooling his placement in either world: ‘where do I belong?’ Together with dramaturgAlana Valentine, and music by Steve Francis,“Bennelong” is a voice for “a race” historical accounts have deemed “totally incapable of civilization” [Lloyd’s Evening Post, 1793].

A powerful work in the truest sense, through Bennelong’s eyes we explore his personal ties and fractured relationships with his community (in ‘Spirit of Barangaroo’ and ‘Wives’), and attempts at assimilation in ‘Responding’ and ‘Crown’ with the magnificently cloaked figure head of all things proper society, Deborah Brown, as Haydn’s Symphony no. 94 second movement adds extra twists and turns. With her face painted white, and her pronounced cheekbones, the stately Brown calls to mind the royal profiles resting upon coins. As she leaves, upon her cloak, the body of the deceased Yemmerawanye trails behind her and the wittiness of the Symphony is made macabre. Widening the lens to take in the whole frame and its ramifications, notions of sovereignty, human rights, and the repatriation of ancestral bones and spirits and sacred objects from museum collections overseas.

The triumph of “Bennelong” is in how it uses the medium of dance to deliver its multi-layered message. Where words or a still image might have fallen flat, the moving body, ever whirling, writhing, leaping conveys with clarity and depth. Transient, timeless, and evocative. ‘Observation Smell’ (first contact between cultures, a sniffing, prowling, Smith and Daniel Riley), ‘Rewind 1788’ (Elma Kris imbues the spirit of the land), and the smallpox of ‘Onslaught’ are a shot to both my head and heart. As Yemmerawanye’s body is returned in the folds of a tarp, his spirit at last returned to country, a shameful catalogue of 19th century souvenirs and cranial experiments is recounted. ‘Repatriation,’ a reminder that some 1,000 Aboriginal remains are still held in collections. The heavy-handedness of my words here illustrating that the body, in this case, is the best storyteller.

In a brick hut some twelve feet square, built on Bennelong Point, exiled by both his own people and the colonists, Smith’s Bennelong mourns his spirit and is thus entombed. Bennelong’s cold obituary declared him “a thorough savage …. with a propensity for drunkenness” [Sydney Gazette, 1813]. In an outstanding longed-for solo, ‘1813 / People of the Land,’ Smith wrings the last tear from my eye. The familiar image “Native name Ben-nel-long” projected in a circle loops me back to the opening ‘Birth of Bennelong.’ An eternal circle, an eternal struggle. “Bennelong” is an ancestral songline made visible, binding past with present. Little short of essential viewing for one and all.

Gracia Haby

Using an armoury of play and poetry as a lure, Gracia Haby is an artist besotted with paper. Her limited edition artists’ books, and other works hard to pin down, are often made collaboratively with fellow artist, Louise Jennison. Their work is in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia and state libraries throughout Australia to the Tate (UK). Gracia Haby is known to collage with words as well as paper.



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