Bangarra Dance Theatre's Belong demonstrates, once again, why Bangarra is one of our leading dance companies (and why it has such a huge international reputation). It consists of two dances: About, by Torres Strait Islander Elma Kris, and ID by artistic director Stephen Page. Both of them add up to "stunning".
The opening work enacts myths about the wind from Kris's Islander culture, opening out traditional movements into contemporary dance, and features an astounding set design by Jacob Nash that recalls the abstract beauties of bark paintings. Each of the four sequences takes a different aspect of the wind - the south wind Zey, the storm wind Kuki, the gentle north wind Naygay and the gusty south easterly Sager - and translates their stories and, crucially, the sensations of each wind into breath-taking dance, combining physical excitement with lyrical grace.
ID comes out of the world of tradition and nature into a bleaker present. Here Stephen Page confronts the question of Indigenous identity, in all its complexities. Page's theatrical imagination and sureness of touch make this a riveting work: by turns devastating, comic, poignant and intimate.
It opens with a tour de force of multimedia, in which a black and white projected film of a family, dominated by the dignified figure of an Aboriginal grandmother, is projected on a back stage screen. A changing cast of figures move in and out of view, looking curiously towards the camera. In turn, different dancers approach the camera until their faces loom in close-up and disappear. The same dancer then appears on stage, rolling out from behind the projection, so it seems that he or she literally emerges into three dimensions from the image.
ID segues into different sequences that are constantly surprising - a satirical take on skin-colour, for example, in which the dancers, dressed as school children, squabble on bleachers before smearing their faces with vegemite to create a startlingly cheeky take on blackface; a devastating death in custody scene, in which an Aboriginal is beaten by uniformed guards and his dead body, transformed subtly into a tree, is dragged away on a tarpaulin. In its portrayal of powerlessness in the face of brutal authority, this last is as potent as the brutal beating sequence in Castellucci's Tragedia Endogonidia. ID finishes with a powerful evocation of tradition being woven into contemporary identity.
Emotionally powerful, gorgeously realised and danced with impeccable virtuosity, Belong demonstrates the richness that Indigenous traditions of performance bring to the contemporary stage. Absolutely not to be missed.
Pictures: Bangarra, About (middle) and ID (bottom). Photos: Jeff Busby
Belong: About, choregraphed by Elma Kris, and ID, choreographed by Stephen Page. Design byJacob Nash, coustmes by Emma Howell, composers David Page and Steve Francis. With Bangarra Dance Theatre dancers. Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, until September 24.