Bangarra Dance Theatre: “30 years of sixty five thousand”
Playhouse, Arts Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, September 5, 2019
The Bubble Spirit sat and watched the little fishes sporting and swimming, darting here and there in the clear waters of the pool. It would watch some strange tiny objects wiggling in the water, then burst forth and take wing and fly out over the water and away to the reeds and rushes and then among the flowers that grew upon the bank. Oh, what a wonderful life to live, to go where you will and come back in your own approved time.
David Unaipon, “Gool Lun Naga (Green Frog),” Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines
From many languages, one song; from “the beginning of day,”1 shared knowledge, respect, and understanding; from an unbreakable connection to land and community, come together, with purpose, invites Bangarra Dance Theatre. Come together for “30 years of sixty five thousand” to mark the company’s 30th anniversary. Come together to learn, dig deep, acknowledge, and say thank you. “With roots in the world’s oldest continuing culture, “Bangarra: 30 years of sixty five thousand” carries the spirit of Bangarra into its fourth decade, promising many more years of deeply moving and authentic Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories.”2
Thirty years of 65,000 is a lot to fit into 120 minutes. Beginning with Frances Rings’ “Unaipon,” with the breathtaking “String Games” and the beauty of science in perpetual “Motion,” as David Unaipon described (on the art of tracking): “There is a whole science in footprints,” and we’re only just beginning. Courtney Radford as Karrami (East Wind), Rika Hamaguchi as Walkund (North Wind), Lillian Banks as Kolkami (South Wind) and Tyrel Dulvarie as Tolkami (West Wind) in “Four Winds,” as perhaps only my understanding of an element like wind can, take my breath away.
In “Stamping Ground,” choreographed by Jiří Kylián in 1983, before Bangarra Dance Theatre was sparking, Bangarra presents a work they were always meant to perform. The first work the company have presented by a non-Indigenous artist, as artistic director Stephen Page remarked, they waited for the “right time for “Stamping Ground” to come back to its cultural roots.” Seeing Banks, Baden Hitchcock, Hamaguchi, Ella Havelka, Dulvarie, and Ryan Pearson embody every part of this homage, its spirit, with their own spirit and ‘bring it home’ is an absolute joy.
“Stamping Ground” sprang from Kylián’s “experience in 1980, when he and his colleagues worked with communities and organizations to arrange a large corroboree on Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria . . . . Over a thousand indigenous men, women and children from all over the country, including the Kimberley, Cape York and central desert lands travelled . . . . to attend the week-long event.”3 In the documentary that resulted, Road to the Stamping Ground, Kylián remarked, “dance is absolutely tied with nature here. It cannot be separated.” In the excerpt which screens before “Stamping Ground,” Kylián continues, for “the dancers here, it is part of their life. They cannot divide their normal life and dancing life; their normal life is dancing, and dancing is part of their normal life. I think there is not another culture which has this melting of private life and dance like they have it here.”4
“Their normal life is dancing, and dancing is part of their normal life. I think there is not another culture which has this melting of private life and dance like they have it here.”
Jiří Kylián, Road to the Stamping Ground
“Stamping Ground” draws inspiration from the expressive use of hands and moves derived from the movement of animals. From the “hundreds of different ways of walking,” depending on the animal, be it an emu or a kangaroo, or the significance of the dance. It draws on the “phenomenal way of jumping without preparation—they are already in the ground and a spring releases and they are in the air and you don’t know how it happened—” and on the use and importance of counter moves to give length to the movement, so that as one part of body reaches one way, another part reaches the other way and in doing so it “prolongs the drive of the movement.” From his own understanding, in his own vocabulary, working from “the point of view of inspiration not imitation or theft,” in “Stamping Ground” you see movement dropping “down like lightening.”
It was particularly wonderful to see the Australian Ballet corps de ballet dancer, Havelka back on stage with Bangarra.5 Havelka cites performing the pink pas de deux in Kylián’s “Forgotten Land” as a repertoire highlight, and I feel fortunate to have been able to see her in both “Forgotten Land,” with the Australian Ballet, and now enjoying every minute of “Stamping Ground” with Bangarra, a huge smile across her face as she makes a tick-tock, frog-leg swing while held aloft.
Beginning in silence, “Stamping Ground” allows the dancers, and in turn, their spirit, to create sound through the percussion of their breathing, the variance of their clapping and stamping, so that when the music does erupt—Carlos Chávez’s Toccata for Percussion Instruments (1942)—it is impossible to tell its exact source. From the wing sweep of arms to the monkey-like step with the feet overtaking the hands, animals are portrayed with a cheeky sense of humour and convey Kylián’s belief that “every dancer takes their personality and gives it as a gift to a common achievement.” Indeed, Havelka, Hitchcock, Dulvarie, and Pearson are truly exhilarating to watch as their forms accommodate the imaginary shapes and spirits they pass between themselves, making counter convex shapes to concave ones.
With a long sliding lunge, Havelka moves across the stage. Her knee rises to connect with her elbow which appears to ‘ping’ and float upwards upon contact. Standing side on, in a seated position, with her arms extended before her, joined at the wrist, she makes a clapping, snapping motion, while keeping her wrists pressed together. A bird’s powerful beak is suggested. Suddenly, the head of the body is the bird, and Havelka follows behind the bird she has made from her own hands. The bird turns back to confront her with a few snap-claps and sends her sliding back across the stage; two forms in the one body.
“Stamping Ground” echoes David Unaipon’s knowledge that there is “a great common understanding running through us all: Our legends and traditions are all the same tales, or myths, told slightly differently, with local colouring.”6 And this carries over into “to make fire” to conclude the night and illuminate what is to come in the next thirty years. “To make fire” presents components from earlier Bangarra works, not as highlights but to “speak of traditional ceremonies and practices, great artists and leaders, land and Country, loss, survival and hope”7 in “Mathinna,” “About,” and “Clan.” A fitting, roaring, licking, burning bright fire source that Page describes as and is “a gift back to our mother creation spirit of 65,000 years, the spirit that keeps us thriving into the future.”
David Unaipon, Stephen Muecke and Adam Shoemaker (eds.), Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines (Carlton: Miegunyah Press at Melbourne University Press, 2001), 217
“Stamping Ground,” “Bangarra: 30 years of sixty five thousand” Bangarra Dance Theatre programme, Melbourne, 14
Road to the Stamping Ground featuring Jiří Kylián and the Nederlands Dans Theater, and traditional dance groups of Australia; presented by the Aboriginal Cultural Foundation. Written and directed by David Muir, produced by Timothy Read and Neil Mundy, 1984.
Ella Havelka made her first appearance with Bangarra Dance Theatre in “Fire – A Retrospective” in 2009. She joined the Australian Ballet company in 2013.
“Unaipon led an exceptional life, spanning ninety-five years, working between cultures and across boundaries as an inventor, scientist, preacher, activist and author. Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines reveals as much about Unaipon, and the context in which he lived, as it does about the myths and legends of Aboriginal Australia. It is one of the great tragedies of Australian literature that the book was not published under Unaipon’s name until 2001, three-quarters of a century after it was written.” Billy Griffiths, “Reading Australia: Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines” by David Unaipon” Australian Book Review, August 31, 2016
“Bangarra: 30 years of sixty five thousand,” Bangarra Dance Theatre Melbourne cast sheet, 2019