Bangarra dances to milestone
Bangarra dancers. Picture: Jess Bialek

Bangarra Dance Theatre, the nation's premier indigenous performing arts company, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. But for artistic director Stephen Page it's not about "blowing up balloons or setting off fireworks".

Page has done two things to commemorate the occasion: firstly, devise a regional tour so that his company of dancers can reconnect with country, and secondly, develop a little-known chapter of Australian history into the first full-length work that tells a Sydney-specific story.

Patyegarang explores the relationship between a young Eora woman and the soldier and scholar Lt William Dawes who, over a period of several months, recorded his encounters with Patyegarang in a series of notebooks.

These diaries, in which he recorded Patyegarang's Durug language and documented her people's customs and culture, weren't rediscovered until the early 1970s, when an Australian librarian found them in the basement of a London library.

Kate Grenville would go on to write about the relationship in her novel The Lieutenant but Page felt it was important to tell the story from an indigenous perspective.

In his version, dancer Jasmin Sheppard performs as Patyegarang, while South Australian-raised performer Thomas Greenfield - only the fourth non-indigenous performer to work with the company - takes on the role of Dawes.

"There were such beautiful, humane qualities to this story that I really liked," says Page, who has directed Bangarra for 23 of its 25 years.

"When we think of First Fleet contact we tend to think of all the horrible things - the smallpox epidemic, the massacres. Here, there is this sharing of relationship between this white man and this young black woman who exchanged stories and language and her love of land and sky."

Much more is known about Dawes, of course, than Patyegarang, who only exists through his diary notes. Page describes Dawes as something of an eccentric, an unusual man who was genuinely interested in learning the language of the Eora people and preserving it for posterity.

"What we can surmise about Patyegarang is that she seemed to be strong and a bit mischievous," he says.

"In a lot of their encounters, she responds to him quite firmly. People have conjectured that they might have had a physical relationship; no one can be sure but there certainly was a kind of intimacy there. They probably only spent about three or four months together but the symbolism of that, the sharing of culture, is immense."

Page says the Bangarra production is an abstracted interpretation of Dawes' diary, produced in collaboration with playwright Alana Valentine but with a stylised, contemporary set inspired by what the landscape would have looked like at the time.

"I wanted to take direction from Dawes' notes but also to awaken Patyegarang's spirit - why she was a messenger, why she chose to share her stories, and why, hundreds of years later, they have become a source of pride to Eora people," Page says.

He adds that Sheppard, who has been with the company for seven years, is "perfect" for the role, describing her as an urban indigenous dancer who, like the rest of the company, is "hungry for knowledge and culture".

"Stories like this give our dancers a chance to engage with history, with the past," he says. "I want to load them up with as much knowledge as I can. Our dancers come from all over the country but often our workshops in the regions are real eye-openers. They get to experience diverse ways of fulfilling their knowledge."

Page is obviously proud that Bangarra has reached the 25-year mark but says he wishes there were more major national indigenous performing arts companies sharing the limelight.

"Any company surviving for 25 years is quite an achievement, especially in this day and age when arts funding is hard to come by," he says.

"But we've been able to grow and nurture the company and it just continues to thrive. We now have 14 full-time dancers, a great production team, wonderful education programs and a great artist-in-residence program. We've developed some amazing relationships, especially in north-east Arnhem Land where the people entrust us with stories that have inspired at least half of our repertoire. What we do, really, is the only one of its kind in the country."

The West Australian

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