Spirit: a retrospective 2021 | Bangarra Dance Theatre

Image by Jacquie Manning

After a long interruption to performing in 2020, Bangarra return to the stage with Spirit, a show comprised of pieces from their repertoire over 31 years. The performance represents an opportunity for healing and reconnecting as Artistic Director Stephen Page says, “Dance is our medicine, a practice which connects the past, present and future through the communication, and passing on, of cultural knowledge.”

The opening and longest sequence of Spirit came from a 2001 production Corroboree and told the story of a young woman (Nicola Sabatino) who meets and is transformed by the brolgas. First she is anointed with white clay and feathers that twitch and swirl in the gusts of wind on the Barangaroo Headland before the first female brolgas emerge to teach her their movements. Costume design by Jennifer Irwin clothed all the dancers in light natural fibres and feathers, with the focus on the distinctive facial markings of the brolgas. The choreography by Stephen Page and Frances Rings moved the young woman through the stages of learning to understand the brolgas in both sensual and confrontational ways. She was alternately shoved and cradled by the brolgas, who left wet smears of their markings on her body until she eventually developed markings of her own. This first piece was an introduction to Bangarra’s distinctly crafted narration in their performances. Drawing on First Nations’ 60,000 year old history, the company demonstrates an exceptional ability to blend story-telling and dance.

Other stand-out performances came from Ochres which premiered in 1995. “Black” featured the men of the ensemble navigating images of masculinity as both hunters and brothers with modern choreography (Stephen Page and Bernadette Walong-Sene) and traditional hunting tools. The sound design by David Page included substantial use of First Nations languages over heavy bass beats, which was both engaging and added a unique rhythm to the men’s synchronised movements. The companion piece “Yellow” had the women of the ensemble in light sheath dresses (costuming by Irwin) and moving with both slithering fluidity and angular juxtapositions of elbows and knees.

The closing sequence “In Her Mind” from Nyapanyapa, which was first performed in 2016 as part of OUR land people stories, heavily alluded to the spirit of healing and reconnecting through time with repeated invocations of circles and smoke. Choreographed by Stephen Page and the ensemble, this performance saw the dancers repeatedly entering and exiting the stage, led by a dancer (Elma Kris) paying homage to artist Nyapanyapa Yunupingu. In a dress punctured with circles, the woman led the ensemble in stomping circles before they introduced smoking sticks and began drawing smoke rings in the air. The circles and colours of black, white, and shades of grey draw on Yunupingu’s art but also speak to the symbolism of circles which have no beginning and no end, always in continuous motion.

Spirit was both a reflection on Bangarra’s long, fruitful past of dance and performance and recognition of the future yet to come. As Associate Artistic Director Frances Rings said, “We are excited to reconnect with our audiences with a program of works which together speak deeply to the enduring strength and visceral power of human connection and the human spirit. We hope that Spirit is able to be a moment of healing that energises us all with the strength to continue to walk forward together into this new and changed world.” This collection of performances certainly demonstrated the beautiful and boundless talent of Bangarra and the power of Indigenous story-telling.

Spirit: a retrospective 2021 ran at the Headland at Barangaroo Reserve from January 20th – 24th as part of Sydney Festival

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