Three decades of Bangarra with artistic director Stephen Page
Like dance companies the world over, Bangarra Dance Theatre, Australia’s premier Indigenous performing arts company, went into lockdown. As Covid-19 restrictions begin to ease in Australia, I spoke with Bangarra’s formidable and inspirational leader, Artistic Director Stephen Page. What follows is a condensed version of our conversation, where Stephen talks about the soul searching Bangarra has undertaken, the energy of audience, the responsibility of telling First Nation stories, and what the Black Lives Matter movement means to him.
CL: At the beginning of March, the dancers and yourself were in Sydney?
SP: Yes. The week before March 22nd, we were starting our ten-week creative period, which was to put “SandSong” together. Every year, for probably the last 20, the majority of our works have been opened in Sydney. We do our long season in Sydney, so it’s about a five to six week season at the Drama Theatre [at the Sydney Opera House].
We got a new executive director a week before we went into Covid lockdown. Poor Lissa Twomey, who had worked for Australia Council [for the Arts], got the position as the executive director of Bangarra. Then all of a sudden, she basically became the Health Minister at Bangarra because we went into this global pandemic. So, we had to really just, like everybody else, find our rhythm in this scenario, and what that scenario was for our business. We’re probably at the smaller end of most major performing arts companies, but we’ve got 17 full-time dancers.
CL: So apart from Covid-19, it was a real time of change for Bangarra?
SP: It was, and it was partly planned. Last year, we did close to 80 performances in seven cities, ending in Hobart, going as far as Darwin; so a huge national tour of the major new work. We were celebrating the legacy of our 30 years. So, we wonderfully exhausted everybody, it was just epic. Then we did our five week to six week international tour to Canada where we did cultural exchanges. It was almost like the global pandemic said okay, you’re really going to review your company! We’re going to challenge you and we’ll throw this at you.
Our dancers can’t just be replaced. It really made us look at who we were in this performing arts landscape. We realised we’re distinct and we wanted to protect all the dancers, so trying to work out the business scenario, looking at our staff, looking at the relevant people. Within that scenario, it’s a bit like peeling the onion away—there’s about three to four layers of business that we had to protect. Then we really got into understanding the messaging and the language and the branding of the company and who Bangarra really is. I would bring up in Board meetings—okay, so do we just shut down? Should Bangarra continue? Really throwing in decisions about who are we, and what are we, and how do we see ourselves in this performing arts space, and how do we protect the value of who we are? Once you start doing all that, you realise the strong value this company has and its importance in storytelling, its importance in the performing arts.
CL: These are huge questions, Stephen. Huge questions! Like to say do we throw Bangarra in? I wouldn’t have even thought that that would be an option. But everything got thrown on the table?
SP: In a way, I was doing that to make us reflect and recognise our value. At the end of last year, we released Knowledge Ground, which was an internal archive project that we were doing for like three to four years. From the end of last year, we were able to release that into the digital world. It was our own Bangarra archive of over 120 relationships we’ve had with communities around the country that had inspired our 40 stories that we’ve been able to make, and the myriad of artists and creators, both non-Indigenous and Indigenous. It was almost like Knowledge Ground was our protector in a way, because we’d worked on it for three years internally with our alumni dancers who have all the knowledge; they’re the perfect people to guide and direct this.
By the end of last year, we did a huge installation at Carriageworks [in Sydney] reflecting the celebration of our 30 years, which was much more than just our dancers, it was sets, costumes, so, it was more like an immersive installation. By the end of that two weeks, we were able to do a special night to bring in all our philanthropic and our donors and all our stakeholders. I wanted to really bring them all in and just to be straight up and talk about why do we invest in this company. There’s a fragility or a consciousness around being financially supportive towards an Indigenous foundation. You don’t want it to come by like a token thing.
CL: Now that you have Frances Rings as associate artistic director, have you got new plans on the horizon?
SP: I think you get to the end of the 30 years and you start looking at the legacy of the company and its position. We’re the only major performing arts company that celebrates our heritage. There’s no other major Indigenous company—there’s no drama, there’s no music. We were in Canada at the end of last year , all of October, for five weeks. We did a huge tour from the west to the east of Canada, through Vancouver and Montreal and to Toronto and so forth, and then we were able to go into a regional area called Brantford out of Toronto. And near Brantford, there’s a Six Nations Reservation, First Nations people. We were able to go there and do some quite comprehensive workshopping and exchanging. Then about 300 people from there came to the regional venue to see our story on stage. I think for them, they had not seen contemporary expression of tradition in this theatrical way, in this sort of stylistic tradition or contemporary way. It was really interesting. Probably in the 30 years, I think that’s been the most successful international tour.
I’m always aware of what people feel. I think in our Western supremacy systems, we just want to constantly understand rather than accept. I think a lot of First Nation storytelling is more about accepting a different way of telling stories, because we’re so immune to the western system. It’s just trying to work out how do you keep your spirit alive!
CL: I feel like Bangarra is so powerful because there are so few words, and so in a way you don’t get tripped up on how do we have that conversation. It’s just presented to you and you just have to absorb it. Do you think that makes it more direct?
SP: Yes, it does. It frustrates people too. One of the perfect examples of that, we were at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, was it 2004, maybe? The show was starting, I think it was like at 6.45 pm, some crazy festival time slot. People were rushing in from work, so, people were coming in from the city, from downtown. And I was watching everyone come into the audience and it was really loud. People having loud conversations, sitting in the audience, it was a completely different audience to those you’d get at the Drama Theatre [at the Sydney Opera House]. I was watching and I was thinking, wow, their energy is outrageous! But then the first seven, maybe nine minutes of the work, it was very meditative. It’s in a dark space. You would just hear traditional language.
If I’m someone in New York, I could never, ever, ever have heard that language, native tongue language sung like this. It took them almost 20 minutes in the audience to just really surrender. They were fidgety, because they were flustered, because they were trying to connect coming from the energy that they brought in. It was a really interesting process. I thought, oh fuck, this is not translating. Then after that 25 minutes, it was just quiet. Then by the end, by 35 minutes in, it finished and it was just quiet for like ten seconds. Ten seconds is quite long in a theatre, and then when the lights come up and the dancers bowed, they just exploded into this clap. But you sort of thought I wonder if they know what they’re actually clapping. It was just an interesting process.
CL: Wow. To watch that submission? Like they’re fighting to understand, and then they just submit. The energy shift?
SP: Yes. It was more about if they had surrendered their energy and were they going to just respectfully, for their own selves, give themselves time to just accept . . . it’s not as if we’re doing art for art’s sake stories. It’s not as if we’re doing some experimental, alternative thing where I am touching all the tips of my fingers for seven minutes to some Philip Grass music. We’re not asking them too much. We’re just giving them the sense of sound, costume and symbolism, and then the movement is a fusion between tradition and contemporary. They have every right not to like or like it; it’s totally up to them! But just to see them settle and at least put that question and that light-bulb switch in their head to go, oh that’s interesting, what is this? This is a First Nations contemporary. Even if they just start that dialogue, that’s a good thing.
CL: You said earlier, Bangarra is not just experimenting for experimenting’s sake, which is what a lot of contemporary dance companies do. Is that why Bangarra cuts through, because it’s real people, their stories, it’s the First Nation People of this country?
SP: It’s a challenge for us in the process because we’ve got to make sure that we aren’t bastardising or we’re not disrespecting our old stories. And when we do go and connect with for example, the Kimberleys, there’s a lot of pre-work. We have to make sure that those communities really understand that they’re entrusting us with their traditional song and dance and story inspiration. It has to filter through our contemporary vessel and then go in this mainstream presentation.
CL: It’s a huge responsibility; I feel that.
SP: It is. We don’t always get it right. The majority of the time, we fight to get it right and we spend a lot of time making sure that we psychologically and culturally care for it enough. Then sometimes, I just have to go, hey, we have to trust now, and just let it go . . . like it’s got its spirit and so we’ve just got to let it [go].
I’ve had a guy come and say, I think what you’re doing is great, but it’s not for me; I’m not into it. That’s okay. I’m not starting up a religious foundation; I’m not trying to covert you—I’m just giving you the opportunity to reflect our First Nations stories. When it’s being carried and entrusted and then, it’s been filtered through a First Nations’ lens, I think there’s a different type of potency. I think it finds its own spirit and we just have to trust that that is what connects to an audience.
CL: So, it’s going to have its own life…
SP: My brother, David [Page], he passed away in 2016. He was doing an album a year, he was doing seventy minutes of music every year. Sometimes we were in a creative cave and he found it hard to be locked by himself in a music room. I could always tell when he was bogged down because he’d put on a crazy wig or some lipstick. I’d go, okay, what’s wrong? He’d go, just bogged. I’d just go back to the simple principles and just go, yes, what is this story, what are we telling, who are we connecting with?
CL: That’s so interesting to hear.
SP: Then I would come back after rehearsals at 5.30 p.m. and I’d come in the room, and he’d go, listen to this, I had a good little breakthrough. I’d go, oh there’s your little seed now. It’s really interesting you know, I really miss working with him. But what’s been really beautiful is I’ve had all these creators with me along the way, Jacob Nash, Jenny Irwin has done close to 20 Bangarra productions.
CL: So [with David] there’s a real missing link?
SP: Yes. At the moment, what’s been beautiful with Knowledge Ground, we realised we were able to connect all forms through David’s music. The legacy of his music was the seed to connect us to voice, to connect us to clan. It’s interesting how the music shaped the archival knowledge in a way. When we move back to the wharf at the end of the day, I’m building this beautiful space . . .[to] have a legacy of David’s music down there.
It’s interesting with the way he collated all his soundscapes, because they really have been inspired by the different translation of language for particular certain things and elements. It’s really interesting that David has many different layers—it’s the wet season coming from a long distance, to the wet season being above you, and to the wet season before the rain cloud snaps and cracks and pours rain. He was able to break it down. Rather than just say, can you give me a sound of a wet season—it’s a bit like there’s 700 different Aboriginal dialects of our country—David would say, okay, there’s 20 versions.
When we move back down to the wharf, [Pier 4/5 Walsh Bay Sydney] in November 2020… we’re going to build a huge digital informed screen that you’d be able to look at our Knowledge Ground archive of all our works and stories and interviews and creators. Then you’ll walk further down in our space and you’ll be able to stand in a certain area and you’ll just hear a sound, the sound of David’s music.
Even though we’re moving back to the wharf and we’d had a bit of a Botox injection, probably not as big as the Sydney Dance Company or Sydney Theatre Company, where they’ve all got like five or ten studios, we’ve only got like two and we’re down the other end . . . I shouldn’t be complaining! But then you think of this country, you have no national world knowledge of visual art ground. All Aboriginal stories are either in the backyard of some white mansion display. If you go to an art gallery, the New South Wales Art Gallery, you have to go and walk in the basement to find Indigenous art. We had to travel all the way to the Museé de Branly in Paris to look at World Indigenous First Nations knowledge. We don’t have a visual art knowledge stamping ground in this country. Anyway, I am thankful that we are one of the 29 companies …
CL: … You don’t have to be diplomatic!
SP: No, no, but it’s true. I do get sad sometimes when I think, oh shit, we really missed the opportunity in 240 years to rekindle and reflect our identity through our First Nations knowledge. What’s great about the world we live in today, [with television] productions like Mystery Road, like Cleverman, you look at the Indigenous film success compared to the non-Indigenous, it’s exploded. It’s really potent. You look at Samson andDelilah, you look at Sweet Country, you look at our television programs. We just have to keep flourishing, and keep nurturing it to flourish. We’re the same in the performing arts. We’re constantly making sure that we protect and we keep our strong connections with mob, whether they’re rural or regional or metropolitan links.
As our interview concluded, George Floyd’s death was just coming to light, and the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests began. I contacted Stephen later and this is what he had to say:
Bangarra constantly reconciles the essence of the Black Lives Matter message which lives in our work both on and off the stage and has done so for the last 30 years and generations before. The stories we live speak to the legacies of genocide and colonialization that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have experienced historically and continue to face to this day. We have survived the attempts to erase our bodies, imprison our minds and sever our connection to country. Dance is our medicine, and our work proudly rekindles cultural connections, honouring the songlines of our ancestors whilst raising the truth of our history up in the nation’s consciousness. It is our way of cleansing, and provides an opportunity for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to come together and look to a shared future.