Dance / The Berkshire Review in Australia

The Bangarra Dance Theatre Dances ‘Terrain’

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Bangarra Dance Theatre in 'Terrain.' Photo by Greg Barrett.
Bangarra Dance Theatre in ‘Terrain.’ Photo by Greg Barrett.

Bangarra Dance Theatre
Drama Theatre: Sydney Opera House: July 18, 2012
In Sydney until 18 August, then tours to Woolongong 24-25 August, Adelaide 29 August-1 September, Canberra 13-15 September and Brisbane 3-7 October.

Choreography – Frances Rings
Cultural Advisor – Reg Dodd
Music – David Page
Set Design – Jacob Nash
Costume Design – Jennifer Irwin
Lighting Design – Karen Norris
Artistic Assistant and Rehearsal Director – Catherine Goss

Elma Kris
Yolande Brown
Deborah Brown
Jhuny-Boy Borja
Waangenga Blanco
Tara Gower
Leonard Mickelo
Daniel Riley McKinley
Jasmin Sheppard
Ella Havelka
Tara Robertson
Travis De Vries
Kaine Sultan-Babij
Luke Currie-Richardson

Nature doesn’t really impose physical restrictions on our free will, but rather demonstrates the movements best suited to us; these too are the most beautiful. They are not an imposed law but very much individual. There is an ingenuity to discovering them and in so doing one pushes against them, but the effortful courage of pushing them can be a misplaced nobility, and while there is a certain inherent dramatic tension there, it can become awkward. There is a certain quality in today’s contemporary dance style, though there are many original variations and exceptions, which is hardly naturalistic in the way it pushes the extremes of human ability. The Bangarra Dance Theatre is in a unique position in urban Sydney, close to the Contemporary Dance World (sometimes called a “Mafia,” but let’s try to be positive), but also with close ancestral ties which give them access to the preserved ancient Australian arts which developed in unique ways in their isolation.

Terrain takes place in nine scenes, which Frances Rings has named Red Brick, Shields, Reborn, Spinifex, Salt, Scar, Landform, Reflect, and Deluge, and has written something of a program to each, though the coherency of the work as a whole is clear and strong enough not to need it (though it doesn’t by any means get in the way). It channels Kati Thanda, also known as Lake Eyre, southern Australia’s capacious inland lake which is sometimes full of water and teaming with life, sometimes a dry salt flat, swinging through these extremes on a cycle of many decades. For many thousands of years the region has been home to the people who speak the Arabunna language. Arabunna Elder Reg Dodd (who also leads tours around his people’s land and lake) has helped with this new production, sharing stories and the spoken language (used in the music), and the collaborating artists, though most are city-dwellers and descended from other groups from all around the continent, visited the lake as they were creating Terrain, and here share their collective response to the place and its history on the stage.

The dramatic beginning with a small group of dancers moving across the black stage only illuminated by an occasional bright flash of light, moving as a single shadowy figure, drew one in immediately, with the electronic rumbling from the music. Beginning with an empty white stage and simple white costumes and white body paint covering their faces and arms, several men move about a single woman, distinct by the qualities of their movements which drew them together into one amorphous form as they lifted her. All here danced in very fluid movements with the lifted dancer more serpentine, sinuous at times, at others seemingly more limp. The choreography’s continuous kneading of this group seemed to give way logically (dramatically speaking) to the violent second section, as several men, warriors, stomp on, crouching and circumspect, carrying traditional shields which are white on the front with patterns carved in. Their movements aren’t martial in the more conventional martial-art style, and the fighting is stylized, but the sense of combat is all the stronger and the drama intense. Some of the men fall out in turn to dance solo — strongly, when dropping only touching the floor for a instant — as the group continues behind. One leaves his shield carefully, ceremoniously on the front centre stage, like an offering. This intensity builds up steadily until it is quite violent, one man is picked out, out-maneuvered, disarmed and caught in a circle of the others. The music complements  the choreography and the drama well without bludgeoning our ears, with sampled speech and some sharp acoustic guitar notes (maybe recalling protest music at a stretch). Some of the men flip their shields to show the charred backs.

The drama though intense never steps out of the line of the arc of the piece as a whole, it remains understated, and tells its story with freshness. The next part backs off a touch though still has a poignancy which only gradually becomes quieter, never completely disappearing. A woman enters and she seems bring some peace, and she paints her arms from white paint in a kind of hollow box on the stage. The set becomes less severally white, though the backdrop painting still uses a pale background. The scenes change with changing backdrops, subtle paintings which, rather than illustrating, complement the sort of story the choreography tells, drawing the eye in rather than away from the danced scenes. There are gold lines on white, like contour lines never intersecting (except at infinity) but rather wrapping around into circles or passing the full length of the stage. Jacob Nash significantly uses gold paint in many of the scenes, in lines or solid shapes on a more liquid background, then there is a ruddier setting in earth tones, which he uses sparingly in the piece as a whole, but then later more color comes in just as we get used to the spareness of the design, large “brush strokes” in pastel, subtly shaded greens, blues and pinks. Jennifer Irwin’s costumes complement the set and their varied fabrics cover the bodies seamlessly with the body paint, though some appear overwrought in design compared with the other visual elements.

A group of women take the set in the next scene, wearing crests made of bundles of dry, twisting sticks which overarch their heads. The dancing becomes more jerky and unpredictable and original, with gyrating hips and bodies bending both ways. There is a lot of floor work which prostrate or on their backs with legs making shapes in the air. This sort of dancing on the floor can look very restrictive on a biped, denying our most subtle and expressive movements, though perhaps it is a more conventional contemporary dance style. Here it is not totally out of place in the general blending of  bodies, shapes, colors, dancers, costumes and sets, though the choreography for dancers’ entrances and exits is very original and interesting and the most memorable. Frances Rings choreography can be wonderfully expressive when spare and understated, but she also creates tight groupings which move as one, a kind of Bangarra signature but she brings it off in an original way. She also has looser groupings with detailed, layered movement, sometimes a lead-and-follow form, other times individual, chaotic, sometimes seemingly ad lib.

Tara Gower of Bangarra Dance Theatre in 'Terrain.' Photo by Greg Barrett.
Tara Gower of Bangarra Dance Theatre in ‘Terrain.’ Photo by Greg Barrett.

A borrowed urban style of dancing, energetic with an edge, cuts in, though maybe the style suits some of the dancers’ way of moving more than others, the variety is interesting. An abruptly different style of costume, in strips of black with a vinyl sheen, cuts in too, bringing in a sinister aspect. Another scene though brings back a more natural sort of costume, with flapping skirts with cut out holes and faded yellow colors. The scenes grow organically to the finale which sees the full spectrum come out, still subtly shaded, at least avoiding primary colors, the painting in pastels in a spreading pattern, the costumes from teals to pale yellows to magenta-pinks and purple, in a satin sheen, and very simple in form, graceful like fish to suit the returning graceful movements, which are now less subdued, more churning, more free, still restrained and fitting. It tapers to the end as if it could go on, or start over again.

Terrain has a definite backbone, though it is not possible to put its story into words; it is often enigmatic, which the music and costumes support and the remarkably harmonious art design complements. The lighting in turn so closely complements the design it is doesn’t make itself noticed. The dancers are such a harmonious group they blend into each other and the story. The music is a well-wrought electronic score, light on the percussion with a strong pulse (figuratively speaking) which makes it very danceable, in a modern way, though the music with its sampled speech in English, Arabunna and Yirrgambeh, recorded piano and guitar and electric bowed strings can be more programatic than the visual elements, it is never too heavy handed for the strong choreography. The piece as a whole tends to absorb one and one reacts to it as to nature, aesthetic in a way, but unquestionable.

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