Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, 29 June
Bangarra Dance Theatre’s new work Bennelong traces the life of Woollarawarre Bennelong in a historical narrative that also explores the nature and circumstances of early contact between colonial settlers and the Indigenous people of Australia in the late eighteenth century. This is appropriate because Bennelong’s experiences of being forcibly captured and introduced to Western language and costume, along with his contested reputation as one of the first to successfully bridge the Indigenous and colonial spheres, are central to our understanding and knowledge of him today.
Bennelong is choreographed by artistic director Stephen Page with music by Steve Francis that integrates a range of vocals, including the dancers’ own voices. With a cast of eighteen dancers, this work is larger in scope than many other Bangarra Dance Theatre productions, and the focus is placed on several key dancers rather than spread across the cast collectively. In the title role of Woollarawarre Bennelong, Beau Dean Riley Smith encapsulated his internal conflict with a performance of dramatic weight and integrity, while Elma Kris, Daniel Riley and Jasmin Sheppard also stood out. The design elements are excellent. Jacob Nash’s set design, Jennifer Irwin’s costumes and Nick Schlieper’s lighting design are fully integrated with each other, and there are quite a few changes throughout this relatively short work.
At approximately seventy minutes in length without interval, Bennelong contains, according to the program, no fewer than seventeen sections. Most of these blend in well with the sections that precede and follow them so that the narrative is not choppy or difficult to follow, but there are a few transitions that don’t sit that well, especially in the second half of the work where the focus temporarily shifts away from Bennelong’s experience as an individual to that of the people around him. The resistance of Pemulway, for example, and the death of Barangaroo (one of Bennelong’s wives) do not carry as much weight as they should because the audience is not introduced to them earlier in the work. Perhaps this is simply the result of trying to distil so much research and development into so little time. Nevertheless, you have to admire the passion and the ambitious intent behind what is mostly a very successful work.
Ultimately the life of Bennelong is presented as a tragedy, and the ending, in which he is gradually imprisoned by a series of blocks placed around him, emphasises this in quite a chilling way. The location of the Sydney Opera House, on Bennelong Point, highlights the disparity between Woollarawarre Bennelong's historical past and present legacy.
- GERALDINE HIGGINSON
Top: Tara Robertson, Beau Dean Riley Smith & Kaine Sultan-Babij in Bennelong. Photo: Vishal Pandey.
Bennelong plays the Sydney Opera House until July 29.