Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Reviewed June 10
The 2022 tour of Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Terrain marks the 10th anniversary of Frances Rings’s extraordinary homage to Kati Thunda – Australia’s largest salt lake, also known as Lake Eyre. Terrain is daring in its thematic explorations, delving into the connection between Indigenous people and land, and the importance of protecting and preserving significant sites. In the program notes Rings, who takes her place as artistic director of Bangarra in 2023, reflects on the ongoing significance of the work: “Our country is unique, through cycles of rebirth, transformation, of drought and deluge, the more we understand those cycles we can protect that for our future.”
The performance opened with a vivid storm scene, a sequence of ferocious thunderclaps cracking through the auditorium as flashes of white light struck the empty stage. This powerful introduction plunged the audience into the dynamic rhythms of the Kati Thunda landscape, immersing us immediately in the dominant themes of the work. As the storm dissipated, a tight cluster of dancers emerged upstage. Comprised of multiple male artists supporting a single female, this entanglement was the first of many stunningly original ensemble shapes. Limbs extended from the twisted knot of bodies in a mesmerising adagio, the dancers traversing the stage like an enormous, otherworldly creature.
This spellbinding section of choreography, Red Brick, is the first of the nine interconnected pieces forming Terrain. These varied sections depict "states of experiencing" Kati Thunda, exploring the features of the environment itself in addition to the culture of the Arabunna people – the traditional custodians of the Kati Thunda land.
Each section was uniquely captivating, exploring a fascinating range of ideas and issues, including hearing the ancestral "Call to Country" in urban landscapes, the ongoing Indigenous struggle for Land Rights and Recognition, and the journey of water into the lake through ancient channels. From Red Brick, to Spinifex and Scar, Rings’s choreography embraces boldly contrasting movement qualities. Aggressive, regimented expulsions of energy melted into delicately ornate sequences, the choreographer guiding her audience through the seemingly infinite expressions of Kati Thunda. Despite the broad range of choreographic language, the dancers maintained a powerfully earthed quality throughout the entirety of the work, as if their limbs were roots reaching deep beneath the stage. Also consistent from beginning to end was an organic sense of motion, each shape shifting into the next with natural ease. Terrain is undoubtedly defined by the strength of its unified ensemble shapes and sequences – for this reason, I will refrain from noting any stand-out performers, instead commending Rings on her eye for innovative ensemble arrangements.
David Page’s score was a striking highlight of this performance. The Terrain soundscape is an intricate work of art, seamlessly weaving together sounds of nature, classical pieces, and experimental techno with a range of vocal elements, including chanting and speech. The dancers contributed to the detailed composition with sudden exhalations of sound, their unified voices creating lovely accents in Page’s score.
Jacob Nash’s set design evoked the Kati Thunda landscape with tasteful originality. The designer’s arresting backdrops contextualised each section elegantly, transporting the audience into the world of the piece without drawing attention from the dancers. A light dusting of white salt across the stage was an inspired design choice, further immersing us in the landscape of Australia’s iconic salt lake. The company connected with the salt in a myriad of ways throughout the piece, dancing through it, rubbing it over their skin, and playing with it. In one particularly transfixing moment, a small cluster of dancers sat poised beneath a single beam of light, trickling handfuls of salt through their fingertips – the scene is understated, yet haunting.
Complementing Nash’s set design were the dazzling array of costumes by Jennifer Irwin. Each garment was a detailed tribute to the Kati Thunda landscape, exploring the nuances of the environment with accomplished artistry. Lighting design by Karen Norris was boldly immersive, enveloping the audience in the shifting cycles of the land.
The instinctual pacing of each section of Terrain made the 65-minute performance feel somewhat brief, yet utterly fulfilling. This timeless work can only be described as a cultural touchstone, continuing to grip audiences with its ever-evolving relevance.
– TAYLOR VENTER
'Terrain' continues at the Sydney Opera House until June 25, then moves to the Canberra Theatre Centre from July 28 to 30, then the Queensland Performing Arts Centre from August 4 to 13. For more info, go here.