Terrain | Bangarra Dance Theatre

Image by Daniel Boud

As we continue to face worsening climate catastrophes and conditions, many across Australia are calling on the nation to embrace the traditions of custodianship that Aboriginal people have been using to care for the land for millennia. Ten years on from the first production of Terrain, Bangarra Dance Theatre revisits the meaning and messages of caring for Country under the direction of new artistic director Frances Rings.

Created with the knowledge of Arabunna Elder Uncle Reg Dodd, Terrain tells the story of the land around Kati Thunda-Lake Eyre including how to care for the land, the relationship between Arabunna people and Country in that area, and how the land impacts on kinship relations. Structured across nine dances or “states of experiencing” the land of Kati Thunda-Lake Eyre, the imagery and movement used incorporated the land, water, sky, and people to paint a holistic picture of one of the largest lakes in the southern hemisphere.

Lighting designer Karen Norris opened the performance in a thunder storm with flashes of light that turned Jacob Nash’s set design into a blinding blank space. Over the course of the production, the set rotated through various murals by Nash that represented the flows, threads, and veins that move across and through the landscape. At the same time as the production design worked through the imagery and elements of land and Country, the choreography by Rings and sound design by David Page travelled through a range of inspirations of song and dance styles that gave the production an expanded sense of connection to the art forms. The costume design from Jennifer Irwin then harmonised the production design and choreography with elegant and intricate attention to texture, material, and the dancers’ bodily forms.

For example, the opening scene titled “Red Brick” saw Courtney Radford in a red and beige costume dancing amongst Rikki Mason, Ryan Pearson, Daniel Mateo, and Jesse Murray dressed in a ribbed, bone-coloured fabric that appeared like an exoskeleton snaking down their backs. These textures and colours gave the impression of the beginning and end of the life cycle, birth and death, coming together. The choreography of Radford being picked up, carried, and tumbling acrobatically around the bodies of the other dancers with her limbs extended, stretched the body in representation of a journey or longing for something out of reach. Later scenes such as “Reborn” also incorporated acrobatic uses of the body like an exploration of resistance and struggle but, here, with Glory Tuohy-Daniell’s limbs bent and close to the body in a protective position.

Irwin found many ways to represent the dichotomy of water and land from wetness to dryness and movement to stillness including the cracked earth and salt crystal leotards in “Salt” and the slashes of black oil coating the dancers bodies in “Scar”. In the final ensemble number “Deluge”, the dancers wore simple sheeny, flowing fabric in blues, purples, and greens as they danced in fluid, shifting motions. Page’s use of tinkling, nearly electronica-sounding bells emphasised Rings’s recreation of ripples and resonance in the choreography with repeating circles and twirls.

Two stand-out scenes came early in the production and demonstrated the unique adaptation of wider dance and music inspirations combined with the Aboriginal traditions, imagery, and relationships with land that underpin the messaging of Terrain. In “Shields” Kiarn Doyle, Mason, Kallum Goolagong, James Boyd, Murray, Gusta Mara, Pearson, and Mateo carried carved shields to represent the Indigenous struggle for Land Rights and Recognition. The choreography was variably paced with sliding and stomping comprising the group’s movements around the stage under Page’s sound design that contained big, heavy beats and lyrics in Language that were reminiscent of Aboriginal rap artists like Desert Sevenz and Baker Boy. Later, “Spinifex” turned the female dancers into spirits of the bare trees around Kati Thunda-Lake Eyre with choreography incorporating ballet’s pointed toes and turns beautifully complimented by long, punctured skirts. The more classical style of the movements were additionally mirrored in the sound design with a combination of string instruments that added another kind of elegance to the scene and the movement of Lillian Banks, Radford, Maddison Paluch, Emily Flannery, Janaya Lamb, and Chantelle Lee Lockhart.

The particular focus in Terrain on connection to land and the space of Kati Thunda-Lake Eyre allowed the company to hone their skills in choreography, production design, and performance to bring a specific place and experience to the stage. The attention to detail across all elements of the production demonstrated a care for the craft that translated as a care for Country and consideration of the relation between all moving parts in that work, too. At the same time, the approach in this production incorporated a wide range of influences in movement from acrobatics to ballet and in sound from electronica to classical to rap which added another layer of artistic interest to the production. Terrain is another beautiful example of Bangarra’s expertise in their art of combining dance and storytelling for a detailed, considered, and complete experience.

Terrain is running at the Sydney Opera House from June 9th – 25th before touring to Canberra and Brisbane

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