“Ochres” was a watershed production for Bangarra Dance Theatre, Australia’s first Indigenous dance company. First performed in 1994, it was a defining moment for the then fledgling company, leading to sell-out shows and critical acclaim. At the time, the work was a bold statement, blending traditional and contemporary dance, while bravely highlighting modern day struggles overlaid on a rich cultural history. Two decades later, and the company’s artistic director, the indomitable Stephen Page, has revived the iconic work in to mark both the production and the company’s 21-year milestone.
“Ochres” is delivered as a four-part contemporary dance piece without intervals. The work is framed around the different colours of ochre—a pigment used to paint, and one of the most important materials traditionally used by Australia’s Aboriginal people. The colours are yellow, black, red and white. With each colour having a spiritual significance, the work moves through the colours highlighting the different themes and struggles.
As the lights lift, the first theme is yellow. It opens with the a cappella voice of elder Djakapurra Munyarryun carrying out across the theatre. A pivotal elder, who performed in the 1994 production, his voice is hauntingly beautiful, and it sets the tone for a spiritual and wondrous evening. Together with Stephen Page, Bernadette Walong-Sene and the late Russell Page, Munyarryun was one of the original choreographers. Yellow represents Mother Earth in all her forms—the nurturing of children, but also gathering, feeding, bathing and birth. Danced only by Bangarra’s woman, the movements are gentle and sweeping, with strength and integrity. There is no narrative as such, but there is a clear and poignant femininity to the piece. The women crouch and weave, their bodies hang low to the ground. There is an alertness to their expression, verging on fear; also gentleness, expressed through mesmeric, fluid lines.
From Bangarra’s woman the work moves into black, danced by Bangarra’s men. Their movements are in stark contrast to the women; deliberate and jerky, but also strong and watchful. Their movements are skilful, they hunt and spar, but their bodies also embody their surrounds, shaking like kangaroos and strutting like emus. It also displays a dark side, hands covering mouths represent petrol sniffing, an ode to the modern day struggles of the contemporary warrior.
Red, the third theme, which explores female-male relationships, is the evening’s highlight. A trio danced by Yolanda Lowatta, Nicola Sabatino and Beau Dean Riley Smith presents the lighter, boisterous, even flirty side of youth. Playful and energetic, it is fabulous to watch. The trio gives way to a powerful collection of male-female duets. Their interactions are complex, with love and passion cut with domestic violence, and drug abuse. It is at times chilling. With domestic violence currently dominating headlines in Australian media, the message is still as relevant as it was 21 years ago. The performance resonates, the gravitas perfectly captured by Bangarra’s dancers.
For the finale, the entire cast moves toward white, the theme embraces the future, taking inspiration from what has come before. The whole company dances with flowing movements, with strength and synchronicity. It is an enchanting ending to the piece, the stage is full of movement and a sense of hope, complemented by David Page’s score.
Bangarra’s recent works are vastly more technical and often framed by narratives, but what is clear is that their spirit hasn’t changed. Twenty-one years on, “Ochres” is still a revelation. It blends traditional and contemporary dance seamlessly, and further, it demonstrates Bangarra’s sensitivity and courage, highlighting complex themes that echo around the world. “Ochres” was the building block for Bangarra Dance Theatre, and its revival today, arguably makes Bangarra the most relevant dance company in Australia.