When the future or even the present feel so pressing it can be difficult to see the relevance of old stories and traditions. But in this collaborative performance between Bangarra Dance Theatre and Sydney Theatre Company, the past is shown to be ongoing with powerful lessons that ancestors can teach about resilience and care.
On an excavation site in Yugambeh country, a group of workmen uncovered bones that belong to Wudjang (Elma Kris), Mother Earth, and her companion Gurai (Lillian Banks). Bilin (Kirk Page) decided to save the bones to give them a proper burial ceremony in a safe place but his niece Nanahng (Jess Hitchcock) didn’t see the significance. Wudjang and Gurai then led Nanahng on a journey through the many things they’ve witnessed including British invasion, the horrible violence of colonisation, and the traditions they practice to keep their people connected. Joining forces of two of Australia’s leading performance companies, Wudjang was a musical epic into the history of the Yugambeh region and the importance of listening to the lessons of traditional stories that keep young people connected to Country and their ancestors.
Director Stephen Page, who hails from Yugambeh country, with co-writer Alana Valentine incorporated harrowing vignettes of colonial violence including women caught in ropes and piles of brutalised bodies but there were also moments of great care. As Nanahng doubted the importance of her ancestors stories, the community rallied around with Bilin teaching her a jacks-like game and Maren (Elaine Crombie) singing a beautiful duet with Nanahng about the continuing past. Even in the memories of British invasion, Page injected humour and satire with a bumbling British soldier (Justin Smith) and his band of simple sheep.
The aesthetic of this production included new elements that were unusual for a Bangarra production. The opening sequence with an imposing bulk of machinery overhanging the stage and the performers dressed in puffer jackets gave the scene a grungy, industrial feel whereas Jennifer Irwin’s costuming later incorporated traditional dress and natural fibres with an abundance of tie-dye as though as a nod to the idea of blending, bleeding, overlapping. The set design by Jacob Nash placed the mammoth mining machinery in opposition to an equally large rock face as testament to the might needed to displace this earth. Nick Schlieper’s lighting design was murky with plenty of shadows and deep blue hues and the inventive use of the houselights and live flames added flare. The sense of collaboration was strong in the performance and production design, extending to include live music from Brendon Boney, Amaru Derwent, Tessa Nuku, and Véronique Serret who added a haunting violin to already tense scenes.
It was in the final sequence that the narrative culminated for the most impact with the final funeral service for Wudjang. The women were clad in yellow crocheted dresses and everyone was adorned with bright yellow paint to match their bundles of wattle and gum leaves. Wudjang was laid gently to rest under a pile of wattle in a ring of reclaimed rubble as Nanahng was ornamented with a wattle neck piece which gave the story a sense of closure and wholeness.
On top of the exceptional talent of some of Australia’s best performers, Wudjang has a special quality to it of a long-form narrative about a specific family and their relationship to their Country which resonates wider into ideas about inheritance, community care, and the ongoing nature of the past.
Wudjang: Not the Past is running at the Roslyn Packer Theatre from January 18th – February 12th
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