Bay 17, Carriageworks
Ones Country – the spine of our stories is a program of three short new works by Bangarra Dance Theatre company dancers and associate artists. Given that long time artistic director Stephen Page’s choreography has formed the base of Bangarra’s repertoire for many years, this was an opportunity for new choreographic voices to step up and show their own vision. But while each work showed promise, only Place, choreographed by Kaine Sultan-Babij, showed evidence of a distinctly unique style.
Place is Kaine Sultan-Babij’s first choreographic work for Bangarra, and it differs thematically from Whistler (choreographed by Elma Kris and Nicola Sabatino) and Ngathu (choreographed by Djakapurra Munyarryun with Stephen Page and the Bangarra ensemble) in the way it explores an urban Australian environment. Sultan-Babij utilises more generic contemporary dance and jazz techniques in a way that successfully reflects the modern, urban nightlife he is trying to capture, and this allows the dancers to display their technical virtuosity and synchronisation in a manner not usually afforded by Bangarra Dance Theatre’s programming. While Sultan-Babij includes a connection to his clan and heritage by referencing his family totem of the caterpillar in some sections, it is an unashamedly modern work in the way he explores the experience of being black and gay, displaced from both language and culture.
This sense of alienation and separation is enhanced by the use of moveable barriers, the bars of which light up at various times, and the way in which the dancers use these fence-like structures to emphasise the gulf between themselves, the audience, and even each other. Towards the end of Place Tyrel Dulvarie and Yolanda Lowatta perform an achingly beautiful duet, then retire to the shadows upstage, watching Leonard Mickelo dance the closing solo – one of loneliness and frustration.
Ngathu is inspired by the ngathu (cycad) nut, which appears briefly in nature, just before the wet season, and it is successfully anchored by the narrative of two sisters (well performed by Yolanda Lowatta and Deborah Brown) who harvest the nut, carrying this knowledge into future season and generations. Ngathu has some strong sections, notably the opening sequence with Yolanda Lowatta and Deborah Brown, and a later section which featured two trios; however, it loses coherence and a sense of flow in the way it switches back and forth between the more intimate narrative and the larger ensemble sections.
Whistler seems more carefully choreographically constructed in the way its dancers move seamlessly from movements performed in canon to unison and then back again. Inspired by the call of the dugong, Whistler also featured some particularly striking costume designs from Jennifer Irwin. The male dancers wore a moulded backpiece which altered the line of their backs and the women wore headpieces which connected to their dresses via softly draped fabric. The visual effect was somewhat otherworldly, evoking the underwater realm of the dugong rather than the terrestrial reality of the space. Again, Yolanda Lowatta was outstanding as one of the newborn calves. In fact, Whistler could readily be included in a future program of dance by Bangarra Dance Theatre. It follows in the vein of indigenous/contemporary dance fusion that Bangarra pioneered, and from a design perspective is visually authentic and aesthetically pleasing.
Each of the three works features set design by Jacob Nash, costume design by Jennifer Irwin and lighting design by Matt Cox. Jacob Nash has created a large scale, heavily textured backdrop which gives the audience a sense of being in a natural environment without literally depicting it. The musical scores composed by Steve Francis are appropriately diverse, ranging from the soft, melodious backdrop of Whistler to the jangling urban intensity required by Place.
- GERALDINE HIGGINSON