• Photo: Jess Bialek
    Photo: Jess Bialek
  • Thomas Greenfield & Jasmin Sheppard. Photo: Jess Bialek.
    Thomas Greenfield & Jasmin Sheppard. Photo: Jess Bialek.
  • Jasmin Sheppard & Thomas Greenfield. Photo: Jess Bialek.
    Jasmin Sheppard & Thomas Greenfield. Photo: Jess Bialek.

Bangarra Dance Theatre: Patyegarang -
Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, 14 June -

Patyegarang is a gentle work. Its 70 minutes drift by almost as though one is gazing through a filmy gauze of muted tones back to a dream-like, softened version of early Sydney.

Artistic Director Stephen Page based this work around the fascinating story of Patyegarang, a fifteen-year-old Dharug girl known to be the chief language teacher and possibly lover of Lieutenant William Dawes, and whose significance Dawes documents in his carefully drawn notebooks.

Dramaturg Alana Valentine notes how Page has focused on the manner in which Dawes sets the stories down; drawn to a curiosity of mind and imagination which helped Dawes grasp how the language of the Aboriginal people he met was employed “to describe the ever-changing, living world of the Eora”.

Page has long wanted to tell this story, one which depicts a more positive and optimistic early meeting of the two cultures, celebrating the possibility of a good relationship – of sharing and learning.  Cultural advisor and Dharug man Richard Green says simply, “Dawes was different. He listened.”

It is this idea of listening and adaptability that came across through the fluid, sensual movement of guest artist Thomas Greenfield, in the role of the Lieutenant. Greenfield was a striking presence, distinguished by his height and muscular form. It took me a while to accept this hunky version of a British astronomer, timekeeper and linguist, dressed in modern day hipster jeans and nice cotton top. But the strangeness faded as we were drawn into the security and beauty of his dancing, a good analogy for a responsive, open-minded listener.

In the title role, Jasmin Sheppard was long, luscious and juicy. She performed with the subtlety of an élue, if too understated. Almost ghost-like at times, Sheppard disappeared into the hazy mist of the piece, pushing Greenfield to the fore as central figure. Her body was beautifully matched with his, hinting metaphorically at their responsiveness and openness to each other.

A standout performance was that of Waangengo Blanco. The integrity of his movement, each step delivered with such intention and presence, showed why we will always be thrilled and excited by Indigenous dance. It had a clarity of purpose which punctuated, indeed punctured, the vapidity of much of the more mumbling “contemporary” vernacular. Clearly the dancers love to ripple and melt into and out of the floor in a mixture of physical language, but they often lost time with each other and interpreted the forms, the angles and the lines differently which diminished the power of the dance. When they were performing traditional dance passages, there was a discipline of form and intention which was awe-inspiring and which I, personally, would like to see more.

Patyegarang is not innovative in a contemporary sense; nor challenging. But it is whole, carrying out its role to tell a story through dance and theatre with a particular sensibility and perspective. With this in mind the creative team are united. There is a sense of direction and alignment of purpose.

David Page’s music massages us through the story, though often for me its beats and rhythms provide too simplistic a backdrop for the dance. Jennifer Irwin’s costumes meld happily with the piece and the set by Jacob Nash is uncomplicated and evocative, and beautifully responsive to Nick Schlieper’s lighting design. I particularly liked the magical blue of the Night Sky scene with its light-spangled hanging set pieces (which I first interpreted as glow worms). I was reminded of the Na’vi in James Cameron’s Avatar humming together in their unified circles around the “hometree”!

 - Emma Sandall

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