The right to a rite of passage

Keith Gallasch: Bangarra Dance Theatre, Blak

Hunter Page Lochard, Leonard Mickelo, Luke Currie Richardson, Daniel Riley McKinley, Blak, Bangarra

Hunter Page Lochard, Leonard Mickelo, Luke Currie Richardson, Daniel Riley McKinley, Blak, Bangarra

Hunter Page Lochard, Leonard Mickelo, Luke Currie Richardson, Daniel Riley McKinley, Blak, Bangarra

Choreographically and musically Daniel Riley McKinley takes Bangarra into new realms in Scar, a work focused on young urban Indigenous men who, without access to initiation rites, struggle to emerge into manhood (see the interview with McKinley in RT114).

Held together by a circle of unanimity and their shiny black hoodies the men reveal collective artistry, rising and dipping deep, sliding and stamping against the cry of didjeridu which soon takes on the buzz of a digitised world. The movement, textured with subtly integrated street dance gestures is free of overtly traditional Indigenous steps or Western contemporary dance moves.

A line forms, from which individuals break into athletic leaps and rolls until a siren sounds and the group scatters, like a gang on the run. Amid the breakout of fights and one man wielding a knife against others and then himself (performed with discombobulated brilliance by Waangenga Blanco), the youngest of the men (Hunter Page-Lochard) and the most observant, solos slowly and with great delicacy as if the one most self-conscious of the mysteries of achieving manhood.

Behind the action hangs what appears to be a huge bone, perhaps the traditional scarring tool of initiation denied these young men, but which still hangs over their psyches. An alternative ceremony emerges as the men remove their tops, shape them like weapons and, whiting up their faces and adding their voices to the soundtrack, they circle Page-Lochard, the bone above them now sparkling silver. The incantation of traditional songman Djakapurra Munyarryun soars, clearly spoken in Language, then becoming sung and didjerudi-like against a fast deep bass pulse and percussive techno-layering on a rising scale, the dancing ending as it began, in a circle with escalating energy and confidence, the youngest breaking into his own dance—a symbol of individual maturation in a powerful collective. The supple Page-Lochard excels, his dancing enhanced with additional layers of telling detail.

Paul Mac’s hard-edged score, created with David Page, is an antidote to Page’s broad, often synth-driven hyper-melodic themes. The two composers merge urban and traditional musics into a satisfying and atypical score for Bangarra, true to the challenges facing the men in Scar. If not traditional initiation, Scar at least proposes the importance of some kind of ceremony, physically or psychologically, for a lost rite of passage.

Stephen Page’s Yearning, created with the female dancers of Bangarra, is typically lyrical, cleanly symmetrical, contemporary Western dance infused with traditional shuffling and hopping in the circling and clustering of the earthed first part. Other scenes are more literally dance theatre episodes focused on domestic violence, suicide and constraints on Indigenous identity. In the most strikingly choreographed and staged scene, a TV monitor flickers with white static on one side of the stage while on the other deep yellow light and shadow wrap around three dancers who sink and rise up as if tormented, a voiceover intoning “I feel nothing.” The dancers struggle to support each other. A final angry “No!” leaves the trio immobilised. In the final scene, a radio program asks, “Who is Aboriginal and how can they be identified?” The dancers in line hang their heads low and move with sinuous angularity, their collective centre of gravity lowering until they sit, looking out at us. Surtitles for the recorded passages of Language and Aboriginal English were not provided, making some of the critical situations faced by the women quite unclear.

Blak, Bangarra

Blak, Bangarra

Blak, Bangarra

Keepers, the third work in Blak, a joint creation by Page and McKinley for the whole company, benefits from a magnificent set design, a vast rocky wall before which, in an overarching sense of ceremony, the dancers tuck into themselves, unfold and display their dancing prowess. The rock face glows and smokes, suggesting the primal power of the land, pulling the swaying dancers to it, its presence amplified by the sound of ‘ancient’ voices and a pulsing beat (Page with Mac). The dance becomes celebratory with heterosexual pairings creating images suggestive of procreative power. With a glance back to Scar, Lochard-Page cuts a singular figure in this adult world. Finally the steaming rock and the exhilarated dancers are cooled by cascading rain—a waterfall of well-being.

Once again, Jacob Nash proves himself to be a truly inventive designer, complemented by Luke Ede’s spare costuming and Matt Cox’s acute play with light. Blak, a popular and critical success for Bangarra, signals a tension between a Bangarra style that has not substantially progressed in recent years and indications of new possibilities—in McKinley’s more contemporary dance vocabulary, in moments in Page’s Yearning, and in the music for Scar.

Bangarra Dance Theatre, Blak, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, 7-29 June

RealTime issue #115 June-July 2013 pg. web

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

31 July 2013