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Bangarra: 30 years of sixty five thousand

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The title of Bangarra’s thirtieth anniversary season sums up what this extraordinary Australian dance company stands for: telling the stories of an ancient land and the First Nations people that inhabited it.

To commemorate this milestone, the company presents a three-part program, including a celebration of stories and songlines from all over Australia, curated by Bangarra Artistic Director Stephen Page and Head of Design Jacob Nash titled “to make fire—the translation of the Wiradjuri word ‘bangarra’.”

Bangarra will be bringing 30 years of sixty five thousand to Canberra Theatre Centre from 18-20 July, with audiences given four opportunities to experience this remarkable production.

Stamping Ground by Czech choreographer Jiří Kylián, marks the first time a work by an international guest artist has been performed by Bangarra, and is inspired by Kylián attending a gathering of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clans on Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria in 1980.

The program also includes a restaging of the 2004 Unaipon by Frances Rings, a work centred on South Australian Ngarrindjeri writer and inventor David Unaipon—a man whose mind rivalled Leonardo da Vinci and who deserves far more recognition than Australian history has given him. His face may appear on Australia’s $50 note, but his achievements are largely unknown to most Australians.

As the man who man who made the connection between aerodynamics and the flight pattern of the boomerang and who searched his whole life for the secrets of the perpetual motion, a scholar of science, philosophy and music, and a respected public speaker and preacher, David Unaipon is a figure well deserving of respect and acclaim. Yet during his lifetime he couldn’t find backing for his inventions and his collection of traditional Indigenous cultural stories was published under someone else’s name.

It was her own lack of knowledge about this remarkable man that spurred Frances Rings, Bangarra’s Associate Artistic Director, to create a piece about his life and accomplishments.

“I felt ashamed that I didn’t know enough about him,” Frances says. “He was a true Renaissance man, he was creative, scientific, spiritual and extremely progressive. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries he spoke about how all Australians could co-exist and understand each other.”

Frances Rings. Credit: Jamie James.

This will be the first restaging of Unaipon since it was performed in 2004 at the Adelaide Festival. “When Stephen asked me to revisit it, I felt a great sense of pride and excitement that it would be performed by a whole new generation of dancers,” Frances explains.

“It’s shown me, too, how much the world and thinking has changed. Originally I approached it with Newton’s laws of physics in mind and the dancers all looked at me like I was crazy. Now, though the dancers are so excited to explore those principles, they make it seem so effortless—even though they’re constantly thinking about how to interpret this into movement. That’s where the magic is.”

With Bangarra influencing several generations of creative performers, I ask Frances if she remembers the first time she heard about the company.

“I was in college in 1992 and hearing about Preying Mantis Dreaming. I’d never heard of a production with a name like that. I remember sitting in the audience of the Sydney Theatre and knowing in my heart that I would do whatever it took to be part of the company.”

A talented dancer who was developing a name for herself, Frances was offered a traineeship not long after and performed in several of their productions. “Yet I didn’t feel that I had the right experience to bring these stories to life, so I took myself to New York to keep studying.” Since then Frances’ career has seen her performing internationally and with Bangarra, as well as making her choreographic debut in 2002.

Thirty years is a remarkable milestone for any Australian dance company, and Frances says the company’s physical excellence and elite production values follow Bangarra around the world.

30 Years of 65 Thousand, Unaipon, at Sydney Opera House. Credit: Daniel Boud.

Yet there is a bittersweetness to the celebration, and the losses of Stephen Page’s brothers David and Russell—both who played crucial founding roles as Music Director and Principal Dancer—are felt deeply by the company.

“We feel that weight of friends and peers who are no longer here, and we carry them in our hearts. In many, loss is like a blanket—we carry it and it is heavy but it’s also comforting.

“David Page came with me to meet the Unaipon family when I was first creating the work, and he was so inspired by the spirit of Country and family. He was very clear about not over- complicating the storytelling and showed me how to tell it through music.

“He is such a part of Bangarra’s legacy, and we all feel his presence in the performance. And alongside David’s legacy is the Russell Page Fellowship that is helping nurture a new generation of dancers to be their best.”

I ask Frances what the future of Bangarra holds, and what she wants to achieve in the next 30 years. “Indigenous Australia has so many amazing and inspiring stories to tell and I am looking forward to meeting Countrymen to hear them.

“Bangarra will be there to tell those and respect their spirit, and stand alongside the world’s elite dance companies.”

the essentials

What: Bangarra: 30 years of sixty five thousand
Where: Canberra Theatre Centre
When: 18–20 July 2019
Tickets: Adults $53–$73; Concessions and under 27s $40–$54

Feature image: Lisa Tomasetti

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