Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Reviewed January 6
Wudjang: Not the Past
Roslyn Packer Theatre
Reviewed January 18
You’ve got to feel a bit of sympathy for the performers and producers of the 2022 Sydney Festival. First up there was the boycott by a number of artists protesting the Festival’s acceptance of funding from the Israeli Embassy – funding which supported Sydney Dance Company’s production of Decadance. Secondly there was a surge in cases of coronavirus over the holiday season as testing capacities were strained, leaving many potential audience goers feeling uncertain about attending performances (particularly inside theatres) as they might normally have done, and a number of productions making last minute changes to performance dates due to the challenging circumstances around them.
In the face of these obstacles, you might think it a success just to forge ahead and get each show on the stage – but in their performances of Decadance (SDC) and Wudjang: Not the Past (Bangarra Dance Theatre) both companies presented works that were outstanding in their own right and brought to life by vivid and engaging performances from their respective casts.
Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin is known worldwide for his distinctive approach to movement, and Decadance weaves together excerpts from a range of Naharin’s works in fresh ways, giving the dancers room for their own interpretation of his choreography. On opening night, familiar company members were joined by two accomplished former company members (Holly Doyle and Natalie Allen) as well as several new company trainees and two graduates of SDC’s PPY program.
Highlights included a section where each dancer seeming revealed something quite personal and private about themselves (was it truthful… or not?) leading into a segment where Liam Green asked sometimes revealing or humorous questions of the audience in a deadpan manner. I am not always a fan of audience participation but this was very well done. Another highlight was the section where 15 suited dancers, seated in a large semi-circle facing the audience, repeatedly acted as a conduit for a rippling wave of energy that appeared to move through them from left to right with enough force to seemingly ‘throw’ the last dancer right out of their chair and onto the floor. With the exception of chairs in this section there were no other props or set to speak of.
Naharin’s choreography is difficult to categorise as it can change mood in an instant. His movement treads a thin line between tragedy/comedy, control/release, ugliness/beauty and many other types of binary oppositions leaving the audience in a state of uncertainty – never quite sure what they will do next. It's a deeply psychological approach to dance that draws heavily on the quirks and eccentricities of individuals and relies on a diverse cast to illuminate these states. Natalie Allen and Luke Hayward had a natural rapport with each other and Dimitri Kleioris displayed great sensitivity in a male duet with Dean Elliott. Holly Doyle made a welcome addition to the work, and trainee Sophie Jones made an impressive debut.
Avi Yuena Bueno’s lighting design contrasts the brightly lit spaces by framing them with dark shadows and uses spotlights to visually separate the dancers from each other despite their physical proximity. Rakefet Levi’s costume design had the dancers change costumes between sections (not every dancer was in every section) from black tie suits and hats, to stark white/black unitards and trouser/top combinations in contrasting colours. The accompanying music varied from pop music to folk tunes and strong rhythmic compositions.
Wudjang: Not the Past had its opening night delayed by several days, but was enthusiastically received by the opening night audience. This new work is on a considerably larger scale than previous Bangarra Dance Theatre works, and incorporates a number of actors, singers and musicians in prominent roles. While the "dance" part of Bangarra Dance Theatre usually takes centre-stage, in this production it was simply one strand that was used to tell the story through song, dance and theatre. Whether you categorise this new work as narrative dance-theatre, musical theatre or contemporary opera – there is certainly no doubting the conviction and commitment which its makers and performers have imbued it with.
This work has a personal connection for director/choreographer Stephen Page as it takes him back to the language and culture of his own ancestors – the Mununjali clan of Yugambeh Country in south east Queensland. Wudjang is the Yugambeh word for "mother" but in this story it is used in both the individual and the broader sense. The mother is maternal ancestor whose bones are uncovered, forcing her descendant Nahahng (played by actor/singer-songwriter Jess Hitchcock) into a new understanding of what it means to understand and carry her culture into her own present and future; and the mother is also the land which carries the stories, culture and trauma of the past into the present and indeed – the future.
The basic narrative is as follows: dam builders with heavy machinery inadvertently uncover and disturb the bones of Wudjang, awakening her spirit. As a result of this, in the present day her descendant Nahahng is made aware of her ancestral connection to Wudjang and, over the course of the show past and present events merge as Wudjang’s lived reality of colonisation, resistance and violence are shown alongside Nahahng’s difficult journey, caught between the white system and her cultural responsibility of becoming a leader for the next generation. At the same time actor Justin Smith (Wheeler/Duggai) is the archetypal white man with his own dual character arc from perpetuating a massacre to acknowledging regret just before the final section. This merging of past and present events (on top of some of the main characters playing dual roles) makes it difficult to accurately follow and understand every aspect of the story but it’s still possible to get the gist.
Elma Kris made a very welcome return in the title role of Wudjang, and was accompanied onstage by the lovely Lilian Banks as Gurai (meaning "wonder"). Actress Elaine Crombie (Maren) had a powerful onstage presence and voice as did Kirk Page (Bilin). In addressing the violent, traumatic events of the "frontier wars" in Queensland, some sections of Wudjang: Not the Past are not easy, or comfortable, to watch. But these are stories that need to be heard, and the work finishes with a scene of great harmony, beauty and hope as the bones of Wudjang are reburied in a ceremony that displays a communal pride in and respect for ongoing cultural practices.
– GERALDINE HIGGINSON
All photos above are by Daniel Boud.