It’s Bangarra’s 30th anniversary and the whole country is invited

Australia’s premiere Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance company celebrates 30 years with an ambitious tour taking in every state and territory – and beyond.
It’s Bangarra’s 30th anniversary and the whole country is invited

Photo credit: Daniel Boud

In October 1989, just one year after Australia had grappled with the repercussions of the 1988 bicentenary, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance company Bangarra was born around a kitchen table in Glebe.

This year Bangarra turns 30. To commemorate the landmark anniversary the company is embarking on a truly national tour – one that celebrates the remarkable talents to have worked with Bangarra over three decades and which takes the company to every capital city across the country.

ADVERTISEMENT

‘We’re going from Darwin to Hobart – from the northern part of our southern hemisphere right down to the southernmost part – and then also over to Perth and up to Brisbane, and everything else in between,’ said Stephen Page, who has served as Bangarra’s Artistic Director since 1991.

Inspired by the continual evolution of Indigenous storytelling, it is fitting that the company’s new production is called Bangarra: 30 years of sixty five thousand. In a three-part program, the production will feature Frances Rings’ Unaipon (from the 2004 production Clan), Czech choreographer Jiří Kylián’s Stamping Ground – marking the first time the company has presented a work by an international, non-Indigenous choreographer – and to make fire; a selection of works curated by Stephen Page from past Bangarra productions.

‘One thing that we love is telling stories, and the continuation of telling our stories. We’re the only major performing arts company that is Indigenous and we’re really aware of our responsibility as a carrier of stories, so for us to take this triple bill out to so many people is going to be really great,’ Page said.

CULTURAL CUSTODIANS

With dance works created on Country and inspired by stories which have been passed down over 2,600 generations, Page is keenly aware of Bangarra’s responsibility as a custodian of lore and wisdom.

‘You can’t take on those responsibilities without having your own internal connections and relationships, and relationships with mob, with the many different clans who have entrusted us with their stories,’ he said.

‘We are the channel or the vessel that takes those out into the mainstream, and we’ve been very fortunate, I’ve been very fortunate that I still have relationships with a lot of mob that come from rural communities – whether it’s Yolngu or Pitjantjatjara or the Kimberleys or through the Torres Strait. Connections with Elders in the past that have really believed in the company’s vision. The responsibility can be tricky because you create these friendships and you do become responsible to care for their stories and the existing of their stories or their songs or their dances.’

Bangarra’s policies and processes around honouring and maintaining cultural intellectual property rights are so well established and respected that the company has become the go-to for other arts organisations in this regard.

‘A lot of Indigenous organisations have come to us to look at the cultural templates that we’ve created over the years,’ Page said.

‘And then obviously when we travel overseas, because all of our program is fully embedded with traditional information, we always take cultural consultants with us, we always maintain that connection.’

Patrick Thaiday in Unaipon (Clan, 2004). Photo credit: Greg Barrett.

As part of the company’s 30th anniversary celebrations, Bangarra will be conducting its first major tour of Canada later this year, presenting performances in Vancouver, Montreal, Brantford, Toronto and Ottawa, before crossing over in to the USA to perform in Chicago.

‘We’ve been dying to do a big tour of Canada,’ Page said. ‘When I did SPEAR, the feature film, that went to the Toronto Film Festival and we connected with a lot of mob there, and the First Nations mob there were like “Can you start a Bangarra here? Can you start a professional company here of First Nations dancers?”’

While proud to be performing in major mainstream venues across Northern America, Page is equally thrilled about the opportunities for Bangarra’s dancers to connect with local First Nations Peoples.

‘We’re going to go to the Six Nations reservation in Toronto to do workshops and cultural exchange with First Nations mob there. We’re really excited about going to Canada this year and we hope there might be a future relationship that might come from that,’ he told ArtsHub.

‘Every time we go international we always pay respect to the Indigenous mob on that Country and seek to build those relationships, and there’s always been some sort of cultural exchange coming out of that. We can truly say that we are cultural ambassadors when we travel overseas.’

THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG

Despite their significance, Bangarra’s national, regional and international tours are just one aspect of the company’s many activities. Bangarra is equally committed to enriching culture off stage, through community engagement workshops with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and a range of education programs.

The company’s Rekindling program, established in 2013, plays a key part in helping younger generations connect with their heritage.  

‘Bangarra alumni Sidney Saltner, Chantal Kerr and Patrick Thaiday run our Rekindling education program, working with youth at a secondary school level from all over the country,’ said Page.

‘They’ve been able to take the language of Bangarra, the teaching, and encourage secondary school youth to go back to their Elders, hear their stories, and create and shape a choreographic structure of that story. By the end of the third gathering they’re actually performing in dance what they’ve learned from the Rekindling program back to their communities.’

Rekindling participants wishing to pursue a career in dance have gone on to train at NAISDA Dance College, whose founders were instrumental in establishing Bangarra back in 1989.

‘The students have inspiration of knowing that there’s a college like NAISDA, that they can have careers in dance. And if that all works well they might have the opportunity to tackle the good old Russell Page Graduate Program and come and be a dancer in the professional company of Bangarra.’

Running the Rekindling program can be a challenge, Page confessed, with the program sometimes facing significant challenges.

‘In some communities we’ve got next generations who don’t want to learn about traditional knowledge and customs and they’re completely taken over by social or virtual worlds – new Western influences that have broken down a lot of their customs in their own backyard,’ Page explained.

‘So when Bangarra comes in as this contemporary clan with this young group of men and women who are passionate and feel empowered about connecting to old stories and expressing them in a contemporary way in the 21st century, then we can support communities by breathing fire, breathing cultural fuel into those customs. And in that way we’re being that ambassador around the nation.’

30th ANNIVERSARY TOUR DATES

Sydney: Sydney Opera House, 13 June – 13 July
Canberra: Canberra Theatre Centre, 18 – 20 July
Perth: State Theatre Centre of WA, 31 July – 3 August
Darwin: 17 August, details to be announced
Brisbane: Queensland Performing Arts Centre, 23 – 31 August
Melbourne: Arts Centre Melbourne, 4 – 14 September
Adelaide: Adelaide Festival Centre, 19 – 21 September
Hobart: Theatre Royal, 3 – 5 October

Learn more about Bangarra: 30 Years of sixty five thousand and the company’s other activities at www.bangarra.com.au.

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R FM.

The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Richard currently serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's Committee of Management and on the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel.

He is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and in 2017 was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend.

Twitter: @richardthewatts