Bangarra's present program is not only an innovative meeting of minds between two dance veterans from different parts of the world, but also a rekindling of a unique dancework, writes Karen van Ulzen.
Back in 1986 I saw Netherlands Dance Theatre for the first time when it came to Melbourne’s Princess Theatre. The program was by choreographer/artistic director, Jiri Kylian, and comprised Songs of a Wayfarer (to music by Mahler), Fieldmass (Czech composer Martinu) and, curiously, for this vanguard of European contemporary dance, a work inspired by Australian Aboriginal dance called Stamping Ground. I had never seen anything like it – witty, quirky, quicksilver lightness grounded in the floor. I absolutely adored it and the memory stayed with me.
Some years later I had the privilege of interviewing Jiri Kylian for this magazine. In the course of the conversation I mentioned how much I loved Stamping Ground.
To my surprise, he told me that he no longer felt able to present the work. He explained that at one performance someone in the audience had stood up and berated him, declaring he had no right to create a work based on Aboriginal culture and accusing him of theft. Kylian was greatly upset by this incident.
So it was with enormous interest that I learnt that Bangarra Dance Theatre, Australia’s flagship Indigenous company, has made the groundbreaking decision to commission Stamping Ground for its celebratory 30th anniversary season.
This time Kylian was not available to be interviewed, but Australian Roslyn Anderson, who was Kylian’s assistant at the time he was creating Stamping Ground, confirmed that NDT has not performed the work at least since 2007, “certainly not in this part of the world,” though it has been staged “many times” for other companies at their request. “He was super-conscious of not invading anybody’s culture,” she explains.
Stamping Ground evolved out of a much larger project. Since his youth the Czech Kylian had held a deep admiration for Australian Indigenous culture. Originally he had planned to make a film involving three composers and a thousand Indigenous dancers from around Australia, who were organised to come together in 1980 from around Australia to Groote Eylandt for a corroboree. Most of the tribes involved at the event had never met and did not speak the same language, so they had to communicate through English – and dance. The original ambitious film project did not eventuate, but Kylian went on to create Nomaden (Nomads) a year later, followed by Stamping Ground in 1983, both inspired by that “dance festival”.
Stamping Ground was a huge shift in his style. Previously, his work was washed by European history and steeped in European culture. In contrast, Stamping Ground, for six dancers, is lively and cheeky, using deep plies and sudden springs, stamps and animal mimicry. It is performed at first in silence, then to a percussive score by Mexican composer, Carlos Chavez. Kylian took the lead from the different types of stamping he had witnessed in Australia, from the way dancers could leap without appearing to take a preparation first, and from their humorous imitations of animals. “What also left an indelible print,” Anderson says, “was the stamping but also the sort of intensity [of the Indigenous dancers] – and that was what he was looking for with our dancers – getting them to find the animal within themselves and explore their qualities that way. It was like a communication, a conversation, every day in the studio.”
Anderson says that the experience of the corroboree went beyond the creation of Stamping Ground. “In terms of the inspiration from the experience, it’s never left him. Every piece he has made since then has been influenced. It touched his soul deeply.”
Besides the dancework, a documentary, The Road to Stamping Ground, was made recording the corroboree and Kylian’s impressions. Watching it today, one is struck by the joyous conviviality of the occasion and sincerity of Kylian’s admiration for the dancers, his acute analysis of the steps, and his sensitivity to the deep spiritual and ceremonial significance of the performances. He is also very aware of his position as a privileged outsider. He emphasises throughout the doco that whatever may evolve out of the experience, it must never be an imitation of what he saw, but an inspiration – anything else would be regarded as theft. So it is understandable that he was hurt, years later, when he was accused of doing just that.
It was the documentary, rather than the actual dancework, that Stephen Page first encountered in his own evolution as an artist. The Groote Eylandt corroboree became something of a legend in Indigenous circles, and Bangarra elder Djakapurra Munyarryan had attended as a child. Page saw the documentary when he was a student. “Kylian talks very fondly about the experience,” he says, “and the internal spirit of traditional dance and this connection to land and earth. It was like he really understood the spiritual connection to their movement.”
Page was not aware of negative attitudes to the dance, and he says Kylian never mentioned his shattering experience when they discussed the possibility of performing it. Page was intrigued at the thought of how the Bangarra dancers would embody Kylian’s contemporary dance version of their traditional dances. Eventually (helped by an Australian connection in the company’s educational consultant Shane Carroll, a former NDT dancer), Page persuaded Kylian to “allow” (his word) Bangarra to perform it. Thereby the 30th anniversary celebration of this proudly Indigenous company will be marked by the commission of a work from a white European male.
Page points out that Bangarra has always been a fusion of contemporary and traditional dance. Company dancers train in many techniques, including ballet, and take both traditional and urban stories to Australian audiences as well as to other countries. Some Bangarra dancers come to their traditional heritage from contemporary dance backgrounds, some the other way round, and Page sees the introduction of Stamping Ground to their repertoire as a natural continuation of the company’s fusion of the present with the past. In a sense, every Bangarra performance tells a story of the encounter between Indigenous and European culture. Viewed in that light, Stamping Ground is no different.
“Remember, we’re the only contemporary First Nations full-time dance company in the world – we have a collection of works built up over 30 years of this crossover [style] in this sort of theatre context,” Page says.
“We present everything from dramatic scenes from creation stories inspired by tradition to contemporary stories from the land to stories from a black social political context. We are a political company whether we like it or not. We’re always trying to break down stereotypes. We know that there’s a political climate that is challenges this company every day.
“So I think to program Stamping Ground is good for the conversation.”
Of Stamping Ground he says: “The story’s just come full circle and it’s landed in a proud First Nations Company that happens to not just be defined by its traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait – [the company] is very capable of practising and living in the practice of contemporary dance.”
Anderson, who staged the work on Bangarra, was keen to share a note that Kylian passed on to the dancers. “Every dancer is allowed to use the original choreographic material which we developed but recreate it in his or her own personal idiom,” he wrote. “Every dancer should search for the specific quality which only he possesses in order to come close to what he is about.
“Each dancer should look deeply into what he or she is or whatever he or she wishes to be. These two forces between what we are and what we want to be are the biggest challenges of our lives.”
‘Stamping Ground’ is part of a triple bill, “30 years of sixty-five thousand”, which also includes Frances Rings’s 2004 ‘Unaipon’, and ‘to make fire’, a collection of repertoire highlights put together by Page. The company is presenting the program in Melbourne until September 14, then in Adelaide from September 19 - 21 then Hobart from October 3-5.
This article is published as "Full Circle" in the August/September edition of Dance Australia... out now! To read more like this subscribe to Dance Australia here or buy Dance Australia at your favourite retail outlet, or online here.
Pictured top: Stephen Page rehearsing at the company's Sydney studios. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti.