The Complication of Lyrebirds
Campbelltown Arts Centre
Spirit: A Retrospective
Bangarra Dance Theatre
The Headland at Barangaroo
Performing live for the first time in almost a year, the dancers of Bangarra Dance Theatre arrived back onstage for Spirit: A Retrospective – incorporating many excerpts from their past works. This type of production is especially welcome for a company like Bangarra which doesn’t often have the time to revisit some of its greatest hits. For the audience - and those dancers who have joined the company more recently - it’s a wonderful introduction to the breadth and depth of choreographic work that constitute Bangarra Dance Theatre’s 30-year history.
Given the company's connection to land and country it seemed particularly apt for Bangarra to be dancing on a purpose-built temporary outdoor stage on Barangaroo Reserve. Overlooking Sydney Harbour, a fresh breeze pushed the large speakers hanging either side of the stage into a gentle swinging motion, while waiting for the lights to be dimmed (AKA sunset) for the performance took a little longer than usual! Seated on fold-out chairs in colour-coded sections we in the audience had the advantage of switching focus between the stage and the filmed close-ups that were played in real-time on three large screens during the performance. And for those who couldn’t be there physically, this film of the performance was being live-streamed by Sydney Festival on its website.
Highlights included Nicola Sabatino and Beau Dean Riley Smith as the lead couple in an excerpt from Brolga. The filmed close-ups were particularly valuable here, enabling us to see the detail of their make-up and the texture of Jennifer Irwin’s costumes. Rika Hamaguchi and Tyrel Dulvarie were excellent in a duet from "Moth" (Bush) while Rikki Mason showed his dramatic range in a more urban, contemporary solo from "The Call" (Rush). Each excerpt seamlessly followed the one preceding it, until the very end when rising gusts of wind extinguished smoke just a little earlier than planned from some of the smouldering sticks wielded by the dancers as part of the choreography of "In her Mind" (Nyapanyapa). The evening’s performances featured choreography by Stephen Page, Bernadette Walong-Sene and music by David Page and Steve Francis with traditional choreography and music by Djakapurra Munyarryun.
Although both shows ran for about an hour with no interval, Jasmin Sheppard’s The Complication of Lyrebirds was a completely different viewing experience to Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Spirit: A Retrospective. Her first choreographic work, MACQ, which she created while still dancing with Bangarra, was notable for the clarity of its storytelling and her delineation of character. While The Complications of a Lyrebird is smaller in scale, it is full of vivid and clever ideas. As a two-hander conceived, directed, choreographed and danced by Sheppard and danced by co-collaborator Kaine Sultan Babij, this is a work of dance-theatre that utilises props, projections, costumes, recordings and research as equal or even more important factors than the dance itself.
While many Australians know of the White Australia policy and the stolen generation, how many know of the institutionalised racism of the "dog licence" or Exemption Certificate that in the mid-20th century was the only way indigenous Australians had of being (an albeit limited) part of white society? In her program notes Sheppard articulates a frustrating disconnect in the way indigenous people were forced to assimilate and abandon their traditional cultural practices in decades past compared with the way indigenous people today are expected to prove or "perform" their indigeneity.
The work begins with a close-up video projection of Jasmin Sheppard whitening her face with make-up to the sound of a spoken 50s-style etiquette/advice monologue. However, her ideas are brought home most sharply in a fashion parade parody section titled "Mission Fashion Humpy". Sheppard and Sultan-Babij sauntered and posed their way through a variety of outfits including a laidback boardshorts/singlet/thongs ensemble and conservative office wear paired with some small visual token of an indigenous patterned accessory, such as a tie or key-ring. With a sarcastic voice-over in full-swing, the audience laughed freely as Sheppard made her point.
The "couture" lyrebird dress is visually stunning, changing from costume to prop as it later becomes an onstage barrier/dressing room, finishing the show centre-stage and festooned with other garments. Congratulations to costume designer Fiona Holley and prop designer Emily Adinolfi, whose creations make such an impact. Video artist Samuel James also deserves credit for the way his projections colour and "dress" the stage. A particular scene in which projected billowing cloths overlap real lengths of fabric is and incredible "trick of the eye" effect.
- GERALDINE HIGGINSON