Lifestyle The Arts Of Earth & Sky & Love
Of Earth & Sky & Love
Written by Ms Jan Hallam


Artefact-Weaving Oct12Artefact, draws from traditional stories of the Kokatha clan in South Australia..Traditional culture is the continuous thread that finds inspirational expression in the work of Bangarra Dance Theatre..’

It’s an impossible concept for dancer-choreographer Stephen Page to talk about his life and work without also talking about his culture, his family and the storytelling spirit which courses through his veins. He understands with every fibre of his being what Prof Pat Dudgeon and Dr Tom Calma say about their studies pointing to connection with culture as being a powerful insulation, which may prevent indigenous people from taking their own lives. He, too, has lost family members to suicide.

The artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre has been bringing this rich indigenous culture into the theatre and across the nation for more than 20 years but the inspiration goes much deeper and has its roots as a teenager growing up in Brisbane as the 10th child in a family of 12 children.

“I was brought up in suburban Brisbane – my father is a freshwater man from the Yugambeh tribe, Munaldjali clan; my mother, Doreen, is a saltwater woman from the Nunukul- Ngugi mob from Stradbroke Island. They were forbidden to connect with country, and with 12 kids it was really about keeping a roof over our heads and food on the table. In a big family your energies are absorbed by the madness that’s big families, so I was gone to dance school by 16.”

“It wasn’t until I was at dance college that I connected with living traditional cultures, whether they be from the Central Desert, the Kimberley, Torres Strait, or particularly Arnhem Land. Tutors would give workshops. That’s where I watched and learned and came to see what a glorious culture we had.”

Stephen’s own spiritual journey led him to north-east Arnhem Land where he was welcomed into the family of the Yirrkala traditional landowners. He said he and his brothers Russell and David (“these fair skin urban mob”) were embraced and time spent there was full of creating and storytelling.

“I couldn’t stop dancing and creating. They thought I was some mad dreaming storyman. They always believed I had that spirit in me and I don’t think it’s ever left me. People say I’m obsessed with wanting to have this connection with traditional living and language that I didn’t get from my own upbringing. There’s an array of challenges that come with that but I always keep optimistic about celebrating it, especially in our climate now, where indigenous people are challenged and somehow punished if they celebrate being indigenous.”

Stephen is also aware of the danger of romanticising traditional culture and the need to evolve but not at the expense of damaging the integrity of the original.

“I question, constantly, if it’s OK for a contemporary clan like Bangarra to tell traditional stories through dance theatre in the 21st century, but what I love is that we have evolved to have this great caretaking respect – these First Nation protocols – that’s evident in all our creative processes.”

Riley-Angel-Dancers-Waangenga-Blanco-Leonard-Mickelo-350 The sky element to the program is a thrilling, abstact contemporary work with a traditional aesthetic

 This month, Bangarra Dance Theatre puts on a celebration of culture at the Mandurah Performing Arts Centre. Earth & sky was commissioned in 2010 and Stephen describes it as a “great evolution work” that began all those years ago in Arnhem Land.

The sky element to the program has been created by Daniel Riley McKinley who uses the photographs of his cousin, Michael Riley, who didn’t live to see the magic the young dancer weaved from his stunning pictures. The result, says Stephen, is a thrilling, abstact contemporary work with a traditional aesthetic.

“The furthest Danny could go back the country was to his cousin Michael, who was just as contemporary as Daniel. He came from an assimilated clan so the cultural language was hard to embrace, or borrow or rekindle so the work is really a cleansing and a healing expression of that.”

The other half of the bill is Artefact, choreographed by Bangarra’s Frances Ring, who draws from traditional stories of her own Kokatha clan in South Australia.

There’s no end of inspiration for Stephen and his dance clan, and he was reminded of that in no uncertain terms when he took his company to Arnhem Land for workshops recently.

“We did this huge show with costumes and lights – just like we’d do it overseas. All the old aunties asked me, ‘how long have you been doing this’. When I told them for 20 years, they laughed and said, ‘that’s nothing … you have to be there 100 years before you’re done’. So I’ve just begun!”