Kia Ora Koutou!
It has been a long time. I took a break from writing to put my artistic vision into perspective. Also, a day-job, running a dance school and organising performances, learning Te Reo, exploring my artistic pursuit and trying to read and research.. I was practically drowning in responsibilities and commitments!
During this time, I also got a chance to go to Sydney for my close friend’s wedding. A break that I much needed. This city of immigrants was bustling with people always in a hurry. It is a world totally different from where I am partly from – my small town Dunedin. While in Sydney, dancing and enjoying a fabulous wedding, meeting old friends and making new, I also made time to do all touristy things. My highlight was going to the Sydney Opera House and watching Bangarra Dance Theatre celebrating 30 years of existence in Australia out of 65,000!
Bangarra Dance Theatre is an aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance theatre organisation. They create works on stories that they learn from indigenous communities that stimulate them politically and spiritually and take the responsibility of sharing these stories with rest of the world. This incredible group of of story tellers/dancers/musicians are artists with a proud Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander heritage.
Excited about what I am about to watch, I reached the Theatre early and was ushered inside closer to the opening time. This was their last show in Sydney before they toured the rest of Australia. I witnessed 105 minutes of visual treat that was captivating. It was a thought provoking political -contemporary performance telling stories of their people through movements and perfect lighting and sets. My favourites were stories of David Unaipon and Mathinna.
David Unaipon was a philosopher, inventor, first Aboriginal author and a story teller. A Ngarrindjeri man of the Warrawaldi clan. His father, James Unaipon was the first Aboriginal Christian preacher who had a strong influence in him while growing up. At the age of 13, he was taken to Adelaide to live with a white family. There, he pursued his interest in science, philosophy, astronomy and music. He tried to connect the myths and legends of his people about stars along with his study in astronomy. He mapped the flight pattern of a boomerang and also wrote a manuscript titled Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines.
This dance sequence had three parts. One about his people Ngarrindjeri – where the dancers showcased his philosophy of his people’s existence in this universe, Sister Baskets – a dance about intricately weaved baskets made by his people that has spiritual significance, and last about String Games – a dance on how the Elders from his community used this game to pass on cultural knowledge to the younger Ngarrindjeri people. The second part was about Science- Unaipon was greatly influenced by Newton’s three laws of motion, his realisation that knowledge of the seasons were essential for survival and Power – Unaipon was fascinated by the concept of perpetual motion. The last segment was about religion – were on his thoughts that ‘in Jesus Christ, colour and racial discrimination disappeared’ and how this belief helped him when he was refused accommodation because of his colour and race.
The dancing of these sequences showed me the importance of retelling stories of people from the sub-altern communities to this modern day audience. It showed me what they thought, their apprehensions and discoveries, their myths and legends, the oppression and injustices they faced. Moreover, the importance of listening to them and reminding ourselves of their existence in this land. The powerful dance routine created by Frances Rings set to music composed by David Page, weave these stories with conviction and I personally loved the String Games for its intrinsic patterns created with bodies and strings. It was a visual treat and also for me, I was constantly trying to think how they used the strings and dynamic bodies to choreograph the sequence. Throughout the performance, we also hear a voice reading out lines from Unaipon’s journals which made it a surreal experience.
Mathinna was presented as part of the last segment called To Make Fire choreographed by Stephen Page and music by David Page. Mathinna is a true story of the tragic life of Mathinna. Born on Flinders Island in 1835, and adopted by Governor Sir John and Lady Franklin, Mathinna was alienated from her indigenous culture and thrust into Tasmania’s social aristocracy at an early age.
Just a few years after her adoption, Governor and Lady Franklin moved from Tasmania, leaving Mathinna behind, and when she was twelve, she was sent to the Queen’s Orphan School. Leaving the school at 16, Mathinna went to live at the Aboriginal settlement at Oyster Cove. By age 21, she was selling her body for alcohol, and one night when drunk, fell into the water and drowned. Wherever she went she never fit in – She was denied her true culture and abandoned by the culture she was forced into.
Bangarra performed just excerpts from Mathinna and I wished I could see the whole production. The sadness, the confusion, the European dress, tying of shoes, the vulnerability of Mathinna when she is rejected by the Europeans for who she is and not knowing the ways her people lived when she returned, Bangarra recreates her powerful story of vulnerability in an era of intolerance. The dancer who portrays Mathinna captures all these emotions which tugged my heart strings in this outstanding work.
Inspired and on an adrenaline rush thinking how Bangarra used their stories and culture with contemporary and indigenous dance movements .. how they used this to relate to a person like me who has absolutely no connection to their world.. made me high on a creative buzz. As I slowly got out of the theatre walking down the steps of the Opera House, I came face to face with an indigenous woman who was lost and was being removed by the security officers – I could not help but think the irony of it all!
Watching Bangarra’s performance celebrating their 30 years of existence in Australia, made me think the importance of telling stories of our people. It is high time we, the Indian performers, rethink our ways of story telling. The dance performances these days are caught within a vicious circle of divinity and hierarchy. How can we create thought provoking dance pieces where we talk about or perform about our sub-altern voices? How can we create stimulating dance pieces that trigger conversations about the society now? Where are those voices? Why are we not hearing them enough? Why are we not passing on the mic to them? It is time we collaborate with them and create stories together.
-Swaroopa Prameela Unni
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