Shattering a myth

3 August 2018

Review: Bangarra Dance Theatre, Dark Emu ·
Heath Ledger Theatre, 2 August ·
Review by Nina Levy ·

When it comes to contemporary dance, I prefer minimal program notes. I believe that the best dance works speak for themselves, that the language of the body can speak as effectively as written the word. Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Dark Emu, however, cracks my rule asunder.

Directed by Stephen Page and choreographed by Page, Daniel Riley, Yolande Brown and the Bangarra dancers, the work takes as its starting point Bruce Pascoe’s ground-breaking 2014 book, Dark Emu. Subtitled Black Seeds: agriculture of accident?, Pascoe’s Dark Emu is a detailed and fascinating account of the sophisticated and sustainable Aboriginal farming, fishing and building practices that were in place prior to European colonisation. In bringing these practices to light, Pascoe shatters what Page refers to as the “convenient myth” that, pre-colonisation, Australia’s Indigenous people lived as hunter-gatherers.

Never mind the extensive program notes (including Q&As with various members of the creative team that absolutely enrich one’s viewing of the show), for me, one of the great joys of watching the performance was making the connections between Dark Emu, the dance work, and Dark Emu, the text. While it may seem a big ask to suggest that anyone seeing Bangarra’s Dark Emu should also commit to reading the book, I would actually go further and say that I believe every Australian should read Pascoe’s Dark Emu.

That said, the dance work’s 14 short sections have a logic that is independent of the book. A melding of abstract dance with moments of narrative, Bangarra’s Dark Emu is richly layered in terms of movement, sound and design; references to the text form a kind of bonus layer, for those who have read it.

That abundance of detail is apparent from the opening section, “Dark Spirit of the Sky”. Jacob Nash’s set design, a vortex of luminous blue rings, creates the sense that we are peering into a kind of cosmic void. The dancers emerge head first; rolling, arching and rippling, as though guided by the haunting soundscape, that features vocals by dancer Beau Dean Riley Smith.

In the spirit of the book, the scenes that follow represent traditional cultural and agricultural practices, pierced by scenes that depict the destruction of those practices by European colonisers. A favourite section of mine, that evocatively uses movement to represent elements of the natural world, is “Ceremony of the Seed”. Against Nash’s backdrop, the texture of which brings to mind veined rocks or leaves, the five dancers representing ‘Black Seed’ split and shake, while seven ‘Kangaroo Grass’ dancers’ feathery movements match their shredded silky skirts. Lastly, ‘Grain Dust’ sees three dancers stretch and contract across the stage. This trio was performed with dynamism by Kaine Sultan-Babij, Beau Dean Riley Smith and tiny powerhouse Yolanda Lowatta.

Jennifer Irwin’s often intricate costumes act as a metaphor for the complexity of the rituals and practices that form the basis of Dark Emu. In “Bowls of Mourning” we see eight women garbed in white webbed dresses, some of whom wear white crocheted caps that bring to mind cocoons. In fact, Pascoe explains, there is a tradition in Central Australia whereby a woman wears a “mourning cap” after the death of her husband. Even without this information, though, this scene is haunting, with the ethereal vocals of Yolande Brown woven into the score. Some of the women huddle on a low platform of wooden logs, others break away in a whirling motion that, ultimately, draws them back to the group. A rich, sweet smell fills the air, almost like incense. Nash’s veined back drop is now lit a deep and calm blue.

It’s a shock, then, when the music abruptly becomes choppy, and the male dancers burst in, leaping and rolling. Quickly they deconstruct the platform, utilising the logs to fence in the women. We don’t need the voiceover to confirm that these are the European explorers, wreaking havoc on traditional life.

Throughout the work, Steve Francis’s evocative score brings together “found” sounds with instrumentals, vocals and spoken word. In amongst the likes of cello, percussion and synth, we hear the flapping of wings, the drum roll of a downpour, the howl of the wind, the humming of flies, the crackle of a storm. Impressively, the vocals are mostly provided by the multi-talented dancers.

And those dancers. They have a sinewy quality, a stealth and lightness to their movement, that makes them incredible to watch. Whether slipping and sliding through white ochre powder, rolling and weaving amongst stone boulders, or springing and twisting in amongst the flames of a fire, they move with an energy that is deft but wild.

Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Dark Emu is a rich tapestry of dance, sound and design that both celebrates the complex, practical and beautiful culture of Aboriginal people, and reminds us of the role of European settlers in its destruction.

Bangarra Dance Theatre’s sold-out Perth season finishes August 5.

Photo: Daniel Boud.

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked as an arts writer and critic since 2007. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. As a freelancer she has written extensively for The West Australian and Dance Australia magazine, co-editing the latter from 2016 to 2019. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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