bangarra at 20: circle of connection

jeremy eccles: stephen page interview

Elma Kris, Patrick Thaiday, Mathinna, Bangarra Dance Theatre


“It’s overseas we regularly sell out 1,000 seat venues—and help to get the Australian Ballet into the Chatelet (in Paris)! But, back home, there’s no signage at The Wharf saying Bangarra Dance Theatre; it just says Sydney Theatre Company and Sydney Dance Company! Perhaps we’re a little too national for our cultural masters in NSW?”

The Stephen Page who’s just a little chunkier than he was as a kid from Brisbane, dancing with first the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association (NAISDA) then the SDC, may have “given up on his ego 10 years ago”, but he’s not given up on his feistiness.

Interestingly, 10 years ago Page was just about at the peak of his fame. He’d already done the Atlanta Olympics flag hand-over to Sydney with its memorably mad roos on bikes; he was poised to choreograph and co-direct the Awakening segment of the Sydney Olympics with “one thousand old myalls from the Desert” and Donny Woolagoodja’s amazing Wandjina rising from the earth; and he was about to be delivered the Artistic Directorship of the 2004 Adelaide Festival. And Bangarra was involved in all of them—you don’t get Stephen Page without his clan. It’s just a crying shame that we couldn’t have had that 2004 festival without the baggage left over from Peter Sellars’ chaotic 2002 festival. Page’s hands were tied. Which, in a sense they have been since birth. Page’s Aboriginality is both his total raison d’etre and a cross to bear. We talked far more about that than dance; dance is easy compared to “negotiating the cultural protocols between North and South—sharing all the mind-fuck stuff with the full-bloods and really digging into the wonderful complexity of Aboriginal culture. White people are always resisting that complexity—it’s so much easier to kill it off.”

“But it is an effort to maintain that complexity”, Page continued, “the protocols especially…things like whether Djakapurra (Munyarryun, the Yolgnu leader from Arnhemland who was cultural consultant to Bangarra for many years and went on to star in the Olympics Opening) could sing a healing song with no proper dance connection, with lights and with the wrong costumes. But working for the survival of our culture is what we have to do. And it’s worth it when a company like the Commonwealth Bank comes aboard as a sponsor of Bangarra to learn something about the protocols from us—dealing with cultural respect.”

Then came the old feist again: “I knew from Ochres I’d got it right.” Didn’t we all? I caught that breakthrough work during its initial five-day tryout showing in 1994 and raved: “(It) simply blew the socks off as it slipped so comfortably from the domestic to the mythic—and back again—making dancers invisible in the internalised intensity of their performance, then transforming Arnhemland’s chalky ochre shield against the evils of the night into ordinary urban make-up as they re-humanised” (Sydney Review, Nov, 1994).

Last year, Page must have continued to get it pretty right—his work, Mathinna about the young 19th Century Tasmanian Aboriginal girl, torn between two cultures as the Governor’s wife took her in, has just won Helpmann awards for Best Choreography, Best Dance Work as well as Best Original Dance Score.

How come Stephen Page himself isn’t just as torn between two cultures—torn and then spat out? It’s often reported that the “great robber in the making from the Bronx of South Brisbane” (his own words) turned his life around with a single visit to Yirrkala in Arnhemland—’discovering’ traditional Aboriginal culture in the hands of the Yunupingu, Marika and Munyarryun families. In fact, Page wants to make it clear that his full-blood father’s family from the Munaldjali clan of the Yugambeh tribe, once at Beaudesert—not to mention Nunukle cousins on his Mum’s side—often gathered for fishing, campfires and music, and, above all, stories. “They weren’t traditional myths”, admits Page, “but we found out where the landmarks were. They were rekindling what had been taken away—with nuances of the spiritual connections.”

“The politics came later.” Page was referring to his time at NAISDA, where the students all wore black, red and yellow headbands, went on many marches and pickets, and had lectures from Charlie Perkins, Gary Foley and the Bostocks. Even the dance was political in the hands of Black American modern dance-trained tutors like Carol Johnson and Cheryl Stone. “They were using art as a medicine, or an ingredient in their politics.”

But what Page calls his “solid roots” came from the North. “Philip Lanley from Mornington Island was the first Djakapurra—creating a melting pot out of an honest exchange of culture.” But the Yirrkala connection had started for Page even earlier, in 1984, and there’ve been four stays since. “We still send our young dancers to Dhalunbuy to knock some of the wonderful arrogance out of them. And we went to the Torres Strait recently—taking some of their stories back to them in dance. Afterwards, the old people cried, thanking us for hanging on to their stories so that their kids would want to inherit them.

“We’re a little satellite pod entrusted with their stories—taking them into the 21st century. That’s what matters—not the Kennedy Centre or the Chatelet. If we lose that circle of connection, we should close down and head for the sacred cave.”

The North/South connection doesn’t always work, of course. Several of the tutors simply “couldn’t hack” living in the city. And even such an assiduous worker on the protocols as Page finds himself “still discriminated against by the traditionals today—we’re not really Black enough for them. They see the stories being stolen from them. But I belong to the heritage of this land—it doesn’t matter that I’m not a full-blood. What matters is where I come down on the big debate today—is the Black perspective equally valid to the white one? Why was my old Dad—the best concreting man in South Brisbane—never given the chance or the money to develop his own business? He still thinks he has to work today to validate himself, and he’s 80.”

“And why is the Australia Council so hopeless with Indigenous art? It’s just a commodity for them—the Australian identity to wave like a flag overseas. But what is the essence of Oz without it? OK, membership of AMPAG (Australian Major Performing Art Group) has given us security and the potential to follow our own dreams. But it’s bloody challenging to make up all those business plans!”

Page would rather channel his energies into Fire, the retrospective work that tours the East coast August to November to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Bangarra (a word meaning “make fire”). “How do I pay homage to 100 dancers and more than 30 clan elders who’ve been our history?”, he wonders. None more so than his brother Russell—who, like David the composing brother actually preceded Stephen into Bangarra—but died at the height of his powers. “We can only show him on screen, sadly”, explained Page. “But we’ll have a Black Gala at the Opera House, and bring all the others back.”

“I need to use the celebrations to bring our people together”, he concluded. “Our politicians are just so exhausted living a schizophrenic life fighting white power. We need to get Black leaders together four times a year—we need to talk. Because Bangarra’s with AMPAG, for instance, I never talk to Lydia Miller (Director of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islanders Board in the Australia Council). I don’t know why there are no sister dance companies for Bangarra across the country, no [sister theatre and music companies]?…Why doesn’t Aboriginal culture get more than multimedia? Why am I one of so few who are fortunate enough to be able to create in my own cave, with a stream of youngsters wanting to tell their own stories to me, now that I’m the elder?”

Bangarra Dance Theatre, Fire, Sydney Opera House, Aug 28-Sept 26; QPAC, Brisbane, Oct 7-10; Civic Theatre, Newcastle, Oct 30-31; Playhouse, Arts Centre, Melbourne, Nov 6-14; Canberra Theatre Centre, Nov 20-21

RealTime issue #92 Aug-Sept 2009 pg. 22

© Jeremy Eccles; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2009