Bangarra: Young Blood
Like traditional Elders passing onto the next generation, artistic director Stephen Page is constantly breathing new life into Bangarra Dance Theatre as shown in their latest production, Belong.
After being the face and creative force of Bangarra Dance Theatre since 1991, it's fair to say that artistic director Stephen Page is trying to take more of a back seat these days. In 2009, the company celebrated its 20th anniversary with Fire, a searing retrospective show, but from then the focus has been squarely on the future, with last year's blistering double bill Of Earth and Sky featuring a piece by Daniel Riley McKinley, the youngest choreographer to ever contribute to the company's repertoire.
This year Bangarra, which is Australia's premier indigenous dance company, is presenting Belong, an exciting double bill featuring two new works: 'ID' by Page, and 'About' by young Torres Strait Islander Elma Kris. 'About' is Kris's sophomore piece for the company – after 'Emeret Lu' as part of True Stories in 2007 – and is inspired by customs passed down through families for generations. Reflecting the strong links between communities and their natural environment, it explores the mood of the winds as they move across land, sea and sky, signifying key moments in time.
'ID' on the other hand investigates what it means to be Aboriginal in the 21st century, a pursuit that has always been at the core of Bangarra. Page asks important questions about identity, based on personal observations of people tracing their bloodlines and reconnecting with traditional culture.
Bringing these works to the stage is a dynamic troupe of dancers, including many at the start of their careers. Kaine Sultan-Babij is one of two trainee dancers Bangarra has taken on this year, and Belong is his first production with the company. "Belong is not just movement and dance for the sake of it," he says. "Both works are driven by an underlying narrative and come from a place of meaning. Elma's work is a beautiful representation of the wind elements from her home in the Torres Strait Islands ... and Stephen's is innovate Indigenous contemporary with strong political views.
"Both pieces are earthy, detailed and intricate. Elma's work is softer – almost Tai Chi – quirky and unique, and very much inspired by Torres Strait culture; whereas Stephen's comes from a more political and theatrical place. They're polar opposites in a way so complement each other well."
Under Page, Bangarra has managed to maintain the cultural integrity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tradition while at the time presenting stories in contemporary and innovative ways that challenge perceptions around Indigenous people. "I believe the company is in a really good place at the moment," Sultan-Babij says. "I think it's absolutely necessary for these stories to be told and for the wider community to be aware of these issues."
But the work of the company has significance around the world, he asserts. "I also believe that Bangarra does a lot for other cultures as well as our own," Sultan-Babij says. "There are many other nations around the globe who have been struggling with social issues of their own and I feel as though Bangarra brings up a lot of political issues in general that many people can relate to."
Another young dancer taking to the stage in Belong is Leonard Mickelo, who joined Bangarra in 2006. He is excited about the company's younger artists getting more of the spotlight. "I think it's happening organically," he says. "It's like traditional Elders passing onto the next generation. Stephen is passing his creative knowledge to us, which gives young artists an opportunity to express their stories though dance.
"I wouldn't say he's stepped out of the spotlight as such, but he is creating his own work while simultaneously guiding and nurturing up-and-coming choreographers – the next generation of choreographers."
Page and Kris have collaborated with Bangarra's artists-in-residence: composer – and Stephen's brother – David Page, set designer Jacob Nash, costume designer Emma Howell, and lighting designer Matt Cox. "They have created two very distinct works, each with their own imagery," Mickelo says. "'ID' is more 21st-century based, whereas 'About' is inspired by wind. I like how you can see the difference between the 'ID' costumes depicting modern social issues, and the 'About' costumes, which are designed to be fluid and use organic materials such as feathers and grasses."
While Mickelo sees choreographing for Bangarra as part of his future, for now he is happy to just dance. "Dance has always been in my blood," he muses. "It's something I wake up and think about. It's a beautiful and quiet way of expressing yourself as an artist.
"Knowing that movement is timeless and endless, there is always new movement to discover and explore."
Belong image by Jason Capobianco.
Belong, Playhouse, Arts Centre, September 15-24, 2011. Bookings: theartscentre.com.au or call 1300 182 183.