Bangarra Dance Theatre has been Australia’s premier Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance company for nearly thirty years. Although the company includes dancers from every language grouping, it collaborates with specific traditional owners, depending on the particular works they are creating. This attention to specificity is an important part of Bangarra’s recognition of the different groupings across the Australian mainland and islands, and the islands of the Torres Strait. Led by Artistic Director Stephen Page, Bangarra draws on techniques that include traditional Indigenous dance as well as contemporary world techniques. The company’s works include Praying Mantis Dreaming, Ochres, Skin, Corroboree, Unaipon, CLAN, Mathinna, and Bennelong.
Dark Emu, which premièred in Sydney in June 2018, is based on Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu: Black seeds: Agriculture or accident? (2014). Pascoe’s book challenged persistent depictions of Indigenous Australians as hunter gatherers and nomads. This representation of Aboriginal people, which played an integral part in the colonial project, effectively denied Aboriginal ownership of and connection with the land, thereby justifying the notion of terra nullius. Despite the fact that scholarly studies and archaeological evidence have long disputed the label of hunter gatherers, the idea persisted in white Australia. Pascoe, whose book is aimed at a general readership, brings together numerous stories recorded by European explorers and settlers. They prove that, prior to European settlement, Aboriginal people across the continent were domesticating plants, sowing and harvesting crops, farming fish and eels, and managing the land.
Bangarra has created a dance piece to express some of these narratives in a physical and visceral dialogue between dance and text. In collaboration with the dancers, three choreographers – Stephen Page, Daniel Riley, Yolande Brown – offer a beautiful evocation of the living relationship between people and plants and the impact of colonisation.
Bangarra operates as an Indigenous company on many levels. It identifies the origin of the dances and draws on community consultations and relevant elders. With Pascoe’s Dark Emu, which ranges right across the continent, a decision was made to deal with stories from the Yuin region, both to ground the performance and to respect the differences in cultural language and knowledge in different regions. Cultural consultants Lynne Thomas and Warren Foster shared their expertise about their country’s knowledge and practices.
The eponymous dark emu refers to the shape of the animal in the stars in the night sky. Representing Baiame, a creator figure and the land bird that feeds on grains, the image resonates with food production to sustain life. Different sections evoke the Dark Emu in the sky looking down on the earth, the germination of seeds, the role of fire in replenishing the land, people feasting on plentiful foods such as Bogong moths, and the destruction of centuries of cyclical growing and harvesting that followed colonisation. Throughout, sequences emphasise rebirth, resilience, and survival.
The costumes add layers of beauty to the performance. Driven by the work’s exploration of earth and sky, the woven fabrics contribute further resonances to the link between flora and fauna. As designer Jennifer Irwin describes them, kangaroo grass is conjured through shredded silk linen; fire is painted on loosely crocheted skirts bleeding out from under hems. These layers of tissue-thin fabric and fishnet underscore the story. Irwin describes the costumes as evolving art pieces that shift and change throughout the performance.
Music has always been an important element in Bangarra’s work. From the outset, David Page made an extraordinary contribution with his soundscapes. Since his death in 2016, others have increased their contribution. Steve Francis is composer for Dark Emu. His score – a player in its own right – echoes wind, rain, fire, moths, flies, and cattle. Instruments morph into vocals and then into the sounds of the landscape, driving the dancers, supporting them, and then echoing them as the audience shares the physical experiences through music and visuals. The score, drawn from the language of the Yuin groupings, includes a ‘Whale’ song, a Baiame song, and vocals in language for songs about fire and rocks. Incorporated into the soundscape is a song performed by Lynne Thomas’s father, who sings about ancestors moving through Country. Bruce Pascoe reciting from his book and recites a poem by Alana Valentine. These multiple layers enrich the work.
Dark Emu is a flowing and generous work. As the project’s dramaturg Alana Valentine states, it unites a dazzling array of elements into a cohesive work of dramatic beauty.
Dark Emu, performed by the Bangarra Dance Theatre, is running at the Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne from 6 to 15 September 2018. Performance attended: September 6.
ABR Arts is generously supported by The Ian Potter Foundation and the ABR Patrons.