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Bangarra’s Bennelong

Ashleigh Went

Bangarra’s Deborah Brown is not your average dancer.

Although she started dancing at just five-years-old in Brisbane, it wasn’t something on Deborah’s career radar. Instead, she was bitten by the acting bug—studying the discipline for three years and moving to in search of her big break. She found it, but in a most unexpected place.

“Bangarra had advertised in a newspaper that they were looking for dancers, and at that point the agent I was with kept sending me to musicals. I was passing the dance auditions, but I wasn’t doing too well when it came to the singing part. So I thought, ‘I’ll give Bangarra a go and see what happens.’

What happened is that Deborah quite fittingly landed in a dance troupe that—while deeply rooted in traditional Indigenous storytelling—is anything but typical. More than 15 years later, she’s still with the company.

Deborah’s cultural background is intriguing, her combination of Scottish and Torres Strait Islander heritage giving her strong foundations in creativity and storytelling.

“They are really beautiful and colourful storytellers, both the Scots and the Islanders, and in different ways. What they have in common is a natural musical ability with storytelling.”

Bangarra’s latest production explores the story of Woollarawarre Bennelong, an Australian historical figure shrouded in intrigue and controversy.

“It’s a complex story, but it’s an important one. Bennelong is the first Aboriginal man to have been documented to have written in the English language. It’s the first documentation of a cultural exchange, particularly between Bennelong and Arthur Phillip.”

“I think what magnifies this piece is that we’ve opened on Bennelong point. A lot of tourists from around the world, but also locally and interstate, have come to the Opera House, standing on Bennelong Point, where this engagement happened.”

Examining Bennelong’s story under the lens of modern society brings into question collective views of topics central to our culture, including that of education.

“I can’t help but think that at the time, it would have sounded so science fiction. It would be just like an alien coming to Earth, studying us and then taking us back to wherever they’re from, then shooting us back here and abandoning us. Here comes this Englishman, who take this native man on a boat to the Royal Court, shows him off, dresses him up and says ‘look, he can speak English, isn’t it amazing how fast he can learn.’ It’s quite mad, from today’s standards.”

“I think it’s a great story to show how educated a man can be, and how misunderstood an educated man can be. Why is he educated—just because he managed to speak and write English? How often do we see Arthur Phillip write in Wangal language? How well-educated in the Aboriginal culture did he become?”

Deborah’s role in the piece is multifaceted, or as she describes it, “schizophrenic”, going from the first people, to a modern day protester, to a snapshot of Queen Charlotte meeting Bennelong, to the unwritten women in Bennelong’s life, in support of Beau Dean Riley Smith’s role as Bennelong.

It’s a task that would be challenging for any performer, but Deborah says is the Bangarra way.

“It’s always been the case, but 2009 was particularly epic being its 20th anniversary. We did Fire: a Retrospective, where I alternated pieces from the last 20 years of Bangarra. In fact, I’m much better with that than say doing the one [character] journey.”

The challenge for Bangarra is to tell a story that occurred across generations into a 90 minute performance, through the vocabulary of dance.

“That really is the challenge of Stephen [Page, Artistic Director] I guess. We have to believe in that, going ‘what do you want us to do and what are you trying to say here’, and we have to go with that ride and trust him. If we don’t trust him, if we don’t convince ourselves what he’s trying to say, then we can’t convince the audience.”

If history is anything to go by, Bangarra will certainly deliver. Aided by an incredible cast, music by Steve Francis and set design by Jacob Nash, Bennelong is a performance that’s not to be missed.

The essentials

What: Bennelong by Bangarra Dance Theatre
Where: Canberra Theatre Centre
When: 3-5 August 2017
Tickets: $49-$69
Bookings: www.canberratheatrecentre.com.au



Ashleigh Went

HerCanberra ACTIVE Editor Ashleigh Went has a passion for all things health and wellness. As someone who loves champagne and cheese almost as she loves a sweaty workout, she's all about living a healthy, balanced lifestyle. She can usually be found with her nose in a book, planning her next adventure, in the gym or updating her Instagram @wentworthavenue. More about the Author

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