Reviews/Dance/Perth Festival

One man and two worlds

7 February 2020

In Perth Festival’s opening show, Daisy Sanders is mesmerised by the potency of Bangarra’s award-winning production, Bennelong.

Review: Bangarra Dance Theatre, Bennelong ·
Heath Ledger Theatre, 6 February 2020 ·
Review by Daisy Sanders

I am a white cis woman writing on Whadjuk Ngoongar Boodja. Sovereignty was never ceded. My experience, privilege and perspective exist in structures of colonisation that perpetuate all aspects of Australian life today. I acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians of this extraordinary land and pay respect to Elders past, present and emerging. Always was, always will be.

The first night, the first moment of Perth Festival 2020. As artistic director Iain Grandage declares his inaugural program open – with the first week entirely dedicated to the work of Aboriginal artistsBennelong begins.

A huge ochre ring is suspended, mesmerising, smoking in the darkness. Men and women gather, huddles of intertwined bodies. Bare feet on earth. The sound surrounds us, subtle, atmospheric, until a first Indigenous voice sings, strong and deep. Goosebumps.

So begins this multi-award-winning work (premiered in 2017 at Sydney Opera House and still touring nationally). Bennelong is a visual feast of stark, memorable images and exceptional-quality production. It embraces storytelling that moves: it moves in the lithe bodies of 17 masterful performers, it moves through multiple energetic/tonal shifts in sound composition, and it moves us, the audience. We are moved.

Woollarawarre Bennelong’s story of first contact is one of the most observed and written about in Australia’s colonial history. An Eora man captured in 1789 by Governor Arthur Phillip, Bennelong navigated across and between worlds. He learned English, lodged with the governor, travelled to England to meet King George III and returned to his Wangal clan. The latter part of his life (he died at Kissing Point in 1813) is documented with various interpretations of suffering and honour. History is a multiplicity of truths: depends who gets to tell the story.

Bangarra artistic director Stephen Page’s reclaiming and exploration of Bennelong’s life is abstracted and determined. It imagines Australia pre-1788 with design textures and grounded, circular movements that ignite a sense of Bennelong’s birth being of the earth itself. Then, though not literal, the story takes a fairly linear path.

We witness Bennelong with his clan (bodies curling, stamping and reaching together) and their meeting with colonisers (sharp limbs, fraught gazes, partner work in which no one can seem to find how to connect or make contact). Bennelong’s weighted movements, equal part fluid and strong, prevail beneath the uniform imposed upon him.

Parts of the work are direct, unsubtle in their rendering, while others are poetic. Five women breathe a refreshing delicacy and clarity on to the stage in the last moments before expertly contrasting that with a tussle and tangle of limbs: Bennelong’s rejection from his people.

Elma Kris (second from left) and ensemble. Photo: Daniel Boud.

Every appearance of veteran Bangarra dancer Elma Kris is outstanding. She mutters and shifts intricately, dark eyes burning beneath a huge red 1788. Some dates we cannot change. Kris moves with the same virtuosity of her unfailingly focused ensemble but adds a notable maturity and depth of presence. Feeling seems to guide her dancing, so we receive it deeper down, in the gut. As Bennelong, Beau Dean Riley Smith relishes every sensation of the choreography, committing completely to his role, particularly in the work’s disturbing conclusion.

The two performers and a score brimming with diverse moods command the shifting tensions of the work. With his sound design, eclectic, swift and sure, composer Steve Francis honours the legacy of Bangarra’s renowned music director, David Page, who died in 2016. All production aspects are exquisite.

As we ponder Bennelong, the story of one man struggling between two worlds, we might also question the Major Performing Arts Framework (MPA) of which Bangarra is the only funded First Nations company. What will it take to avoid tokenism, to truly honour the essential foundation that First Nations peoples are in this country and ensure the health of our arts ecology? There is so much work to be done in unravelling the systems that bind us in divisions of colour, class and wealth.

See whatever First Nations work you can this week. Bennelong reminds us of Bangarra’s stylised, enduring legacy and the potency of dialogue it invites us to engage with. If you can get your hands on a ticket, see it. Experience its movement and let it move you. Then ask what else? What now? We are all implicated in the everyday complexity and pain of our nation’s founding, of this one place with two-worlds.

Bennelong is on at the State Theatre Centre until 1 March 2020.

Pictured top: Beau Dean Riley Smith, right, in the title role of ‘Bennelong’.

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Author —
Daisy Sanders

Daisy Sanders is an independent artist, 2017 WAAPA graduate (BA Dance, First Class Honours) and proud member of Sensorium Theatre. Her practice includes an enduring, embodied exploration of rest and generating creative spaces focused on care and critical dialogue. Daisy recently worked internationally with Teać Damsa and Geoff Sobelle. She loves the Merry-go-round and its centripetal force!

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