Bangarra Dance Theatre brings their program of Spirit and Nyapanyapa to the National Arts Centre November 15th and 16th. They are an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island company that hails from Australia. I spoke with Stephen Page, Artistic Director, ahead of the company’s two-night run.
Page spoke of the history of dance and culture and largely how First Nations were disallowed from practicing their culture. He said, “you get uprooted and displaced and assimilated. My parents and grandparents came from a generation where they couldn’t be empowered by their First Nations culture.” The company was created out of a love for a dance and a need for storytelling. Along with his late brothers this company was formed; Page said, “we were just fortunate to all come together in our 20s and so there was a need out of the college [we attended]. Pretty much we all came together and started this professional arm and we created our first major work—traditional and contemporary. [It is] contemporary movement with traditional motif.”
You get uprooted and displaced and assimilated. My parents and grandparents came from a generation where they couldn’t be empowered by their First Nations culture.
Nyapanyapa is a piece that celebrates the work of Yirrkala artist Nyapanyapa Yunupingu. Page said, “She had this wonderful meditation about her. She would get hair from a dog and tie it to a stick and create her own paintbrush. [Her lines] would just be separated by a little slice of space, what they called cross-hatch painting.”
Nyapanyapa has a rather tragic story. “She was gorged by a water buffalo. She was unfortunately attacked by it. She survived, but she’d never been the same. She didn’t have children or a husband, but a lot of dogs in the community.” Page spoke of the National Gallery of Australia that asked her to create a work for them. He said the gallery had this “beautiful bark and the curator asked if she was ready to tell her story to the community on this piece of bark.”
Page told me this piece is a retelling of her story: “We actually play [the story] out in an 11-minute pantomime. We hang this huge bark and play out the physical response. We look at different paintings and her style and it’s really meditative.” Page spoke passionately about her work, citing its simplicity and calm beauty. He said, “she draws these little girls with no hair and she doesn’t talk very much and has a little bit of brain damage. The 45 minutes in Ottawa is paying tribute to the wonderful beauty of her work and her talent and artistry.”
We are the only major dance company in Australia that is First Nations. We are the only one of its kind in the world—telling stories of old and new.
He spoke highly of his experience performing with the company in Canada. “We’ve had some beautiful cultural exchanges. We’ve had beautiful welcome to territories. That, culturally, has been very beautiful. We’ve been meaning to come to Canada for a long time now,” he said.
Page also mentioned that the company has recently had their 30 year celebration: “the show was called 30 Years of 65 Years. We are the only major dance company in Australia that is First Nations. We are the only one of its kind in the world—telling stories of old and new. I think the audiences just connect to the spirit of the work. And I think that’s why [our piece] is called Spirit. This connection to land and story with costume and lights. We always have a story to tell and whether thats reliving the past or mythological creation inspired, we are constantly evolving continuing culture. Our dances are diverse of all of First Nations.”
Just really be curious and try not to feel like you have to understand… just feel.
My favourite part of doing these interviews is always hearing everyone speak so passionately and Page and I had a wonderful conversation about dance. He said, “It’s a beautiful language too, dance. I think people are not used to that kind of communicating. I just think dance is such a universal language.”
Speaking of Bangarra Dance Theatre’s show, Page said, “This is contemporary performing art celebrating tradition. I like to call it a ‘First Nation theatrical experience through dance theatre.’ When people watch they know it comes from an ancient past… but in a stylistic presentation.” His advice to first-time audiences: “Just really be curious and try not to feel like you have to understand, just feel.”
Bangarra Dance Theatre performs at the National Arts Centre (1 Elgin St) November 15–16, 2019 at 8pm in Southam Hall. The performance runs approximately 1 hour and 16 mins with no intermission. Content warning: Partial Nudity, and smoke machine. Tickets are available online and range for $49–91. Half-price student tickets and $15 Live Rush are available for this performance.