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Bangarra Dance Theater - Awakenings

by Sarah Hart
October 24, 2008
Brooklyn Academy of Music
30 Lafayette Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11217
(718) 636-4111
BAM Harvey Theater
Australia's Bangarra Dance Theater describes itself as an Indigenous Company, and its mission is contemporary dance that is not only inspired by but stays true to Australian Aboriginal culture.

In many ways, "Awakenings," performed at BAM Harvey Theater in Brooklyn on October 24th, achieved this admirably. The set design—spare but for an earthen-looking wall dominating the backdrop; the lighting—natural-seeming, and lingering often in the dim registers of dawn and dusk; and the props and costumes—bold body paint, copious dust, sticks and leaves—successfully called forth, for me at least, what vague notions I have of an ochre-red, eucalyptus-spotted, Australian landscape.

And some of the dances were truly powerful and moving. For example, in the beginning sequence the stage glows in a dull red light until suddenly split by a strong white beam from stage left. A troupe of dancers emerges from the opposite side, stepping slowly and in unison. They stare at the light as if transfixed and every aspect of their movement is charged with wary energy and fascination.

Several movements later we have the equally impressive "Cocoon." The empty stage is washed in cool blue light. In the center a man, nearly naked, is curled on the floor. When he moves it is with rippling undulations that seem more animalistic than human. He is vulnerable, but the rapidity and total abandon of his limbs suggest an unnerving power. He is a creature one might find in the depths of a cave, or in a deep underwater chamber—something slippery and tender, mute, even helpless, but shockingly strong.

In the program we are told that the first dance is "Looking," and entails "A family returns to the land—looking through the eyes of their spiritual elders." In the latter one: "The spirit travels and searches of a meeting ground, a place of rebirth."

These notes reveal the great weakness of "Awakenings." It would seem that Stephen Page, artistic director and choreographer, wants to inspire respect and appreciation of Aboriginal culture. Unfortunately his tactic of choice is questionable, even dangerous.

Page keeps tight the reins of interpretation. The playbill spells what one should see on stage and many of his dances depict a literal representation of their source material. In "Hunting and Gathering," women "dig" under a brush pile and seem to pluck berries from leaves strewn on the stage. In "Canoe," men simulate rowing and angling after fish. By emphasizing the narrative, Page seems to want to educate about Aboriginal culture. But though these pieces convey the grace and physical beauty of practical motions, they also drift dangerously close to enforcing simplistic ideas of who Aboriginal people are and the extent of how Aboriginal culture can be understood. The equivalent would be if someone made a dance to describe American culture and drew exclusively on two-dimensional portrayals such as "The Farmer," "The Stockbroker," The Grandma Baking Cookies."

This is particularly troublesome in the characters played by Djakapurra Munyarryun, a stage presence and also a Cultural Consultant for the troupe. He is a big guy—very tall and hefty and he stands out conspicuously among the lithe dancers. His movements are limited to the slow and stately. He stalks around deliberately, often with a prop of some importance. It is hard to see him as anything other than a stereotyped portrayal of "The Wise," "The Elder," or "The Spirit." In this depiction, Slow = Serious and Ponderous = Heavy-With-Significance.

Page seems to want very much that the audience feel respectful awe for Aboriginal culture. Ironically, he achieves this best when the dance lifts above the literal and allows the skill of the dancers (all of whom are from, or have familial connection with, an Aboriginal ethnic group) and the beauty of the choreography to work their magic.

This is accomplished breathtakingly in the last movement. It is a long piece about a girl's initiation to womanhood. It takes place at a river's delta but even if this had not been specified in the utterly unnecessary playbill notes, the haunting music and dawn-like light would have evoked a place vast and lonely. When the dancers appear in the high-stepping, harsh-calling guise of shore birds we are transported to the surreal landscape where fresh and salt waters meet, sky and ocean touch, and wildlife thrives.

The girl in question is lovely and looks like a reed in her fluttering white dress. She is swept in among the birds, at times aggressed by them, other times startling them into cacophonous chaos, and eventually experiencing a discomfiting and very intense sexual connection with one. This culminates in a dream-like transport from which she emerges marked as they are—dusted white and striped dramatically along the crest of her head and across her eyes. She has been transformed.

The dance is thrilling. It generates feelings of fear and excitement that transcend the stage. It does far more to convey something of the powerful traditions and spiritual wisdom of Aboriginal culture than didactic liner notes and an earnest mission statement ever could.
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