The cast of Blak | Drama Theatre (Pic: Roger Stonehouse)

The Page brothers, it seems, are aptly named. With every work, the seem to turn over a new leaf, revealing something we haven’t seen before. They and the company, Bangarra, draw on cultural practice handed down across countless millennia to unfold something utterly contemporary. And so it is with their new work, Blak. In fact, Blak appears to look back through that prism of ancient traditions to examine what’s changed.

All this in eight weeks, woe to go and seventy-five intense minutes on stage. What they find, I suppose, in looking back, is everything’s changed. And nothing. What has survived the dark chronicles of time intact, at least for indigenous Australians, is community. Bangarra’s executive director, Catherine Baldwin, thoughtfully expounds the notion that the community is extended to embrace the company’s audiences, at each and every performance, creating “an intangible web of fellow travellers”.

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It’s reconciliation in a poetic notion. And motion. In this way, a Bangarra work is not only more comprehensive than the sum of its parts, but endowed with and empowered by songlines still being drawn.

The first ‘movement’, Scar, depicts a group of young, urban men, a hip hop generation, clad in hoodies, dancing around each other. It’s a testosterone-fuelled atmosphere that anticipates confrontation. And it comes. Stephen Page has handed the reins to Daniel Riley McKinley on the strength of Bangarra’s youngest choreographer’s contribution, a few years ago, to earth and sky.

Emergence into adulthood is tough enough for young men, let alone indigenous men, who are often caught, and torn, between two cultures and, in certain circumstances, not fully welcome in either. This purgatory, no-man’s-land, spiritual terra nullius, is the jumping-off point, conceptually, for Scar. There’s something intrinsically masculine about McKinley’s direction for the men of the company: not violent, but latent. When I say masculine, I’m not just talking about muscularity, tending towards violent, kinesis. Implicit is the fear and vulnerability all men feel. It’s the ‘unspoken’, that which isn’t acted out, that makes this, anachronistically, most obvious. Much of the scene-setting is effected through Matt Cox’ lighting. Often, this means the lack of it. His stated objective is to enhance storytelling through abstraction. He certainly has a knack for making a relatively small space seem like a vast, mysterious void; or a back alley of the block. The other essential ingredient is David Page, who has found a sympathetic collaborator in Paul Mac. Together, they’ve created a soundtrack for Scar which is, at first, disquieting. It hovers like a big, black bat, helping to create the pervasive sense of menace being played out on stage.

By all accounts (including his own), this work is deeply personal for McKinley. He has conceived and directed the piece, but has joined with the six other dancers to choreograph it. The shared ownership is palpable: there’s recognition between the performers. And why wouldn’t there be? If they’re not going through it, they’ve been through it. Out of the darkness, come voices of the past, echoing wisdom, that lure them to reconnect with culture: language, traditions, the spirit of the land. The message here is that modern life and those connections aren’t necessarily incompatible. Difficult to negotiate and balance? Definitely. Becoming and being a man in white and black society are two very different things and the danger is, of course, that by sheer weight and frequency of exposure, the rites of passage to manhood recognised traditionally will be obfuscated. McKinley and dancers address something close to their hearts and experience with a sincerity and authenticity that’s transmitted movingly, even to whitefellas. If we needed any confirmation that the long spells Bangarra has spent and continues to spend in NE Arnhemland bear fruit, here it is. No doubt cultural consultant Djakapurra Munyarryun has been an instrumental inspiration to McKinley. In fact, he concedes as much.

Scar is powerful. Just as McKinley pays respect to traditional rituals and practices strengthening, educating, empowering and ‘giving rise to new generations’, Scar will too, I think; especially, but not only, in urban communities.

Having unleashed McKinley to work with the males in the company, Stephen Page took it upon himself to work with the women, resulting in Yearning. Just as McKinley has found and is still finding his own dance language, which almost magically integrates the traditional with the contemporary, in a way which keeps the work grounded, Page has this time lent towards an almost balletic style; this choreography is lifted up, as if from the earth, the source of spirit.

It’s high time I made mention of Jacob Nash’s set, too. For the men, a motif which looked like a pointed bone hovered above them. In the context of the bone-shaking music and tenebrous lighting, it carried connotations of foreboding and fatefulness but, at some point, Cox transformed it from the organic and mystical to the sharp, metallic aesthetic of a rustic nail, as if to symbolise the nexus between traditional and urban. In both cases, of course, it’s an undeniably phallic emblem which, in the case of the women’s dance business, is counterpointed by a silvery-white circle of light, a ring around the moon; soft and receptive. Brilliant. A substantial part of Bangarra’s artistic success, it seems to me, lies in the relationships it forges between contributors, such that these overlap and merge, one becoming inextricable from the other. Nash, Cox, Page and Mac function as an wholistic, audiovisual “wizard of Aus”.

Stephen Page doesn’t resole from the tough stuff. Yearning takes us on a journey through life, beginning with Birth, which celebrates indigenous women and the female earth spirit, before plunging us into despair and grief, with Loss, charting, topically, a young girl’s suicide and her grandmother’s incredulity, torment and auto-interrogation. From despair to repair, with Native Tongue, which portrays the umbilical cord that connects language to culture and selfhood. Broken looks at domestic violence and, finally, Unearthed looks at the not altogether painless catharsis of an initiation. These delineations are not necessarily obvious; nor do they need to be, as the piece works on a more subliminal plane, fusing all these concerns into an operatic entirety. It might be seen as emblematic of the parts that make up a strong indigenous woman, as much as about the externals that act upon her. She is the moon, undergoing phases. The movements are correspondingly soft, elegant and curvaceous, with an aspiration upwards, to soar. It’s Venusian to McKinley’s Mars.

With Keepers, Page and McKinley join forces with the full ensemble to kneel before the custodians of this wide, brown (or black) land. Again in near darkness, Cox and Nash lead us to believe we’re in limestone cave, reverberating with the knowledge of the ages. In it and through the dancers, as media for legions of spirits, we can feel the presence of the past, as if it were present. Of course, at least for some of us, it is.

The details: Blak plays the Sydney Opera House until June 29, the Canberra Theatre Centre on July 11-13 and QPAC in Brisbane on July 18-27. Tickets at the venue website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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