Sunday, August 13, 2017

Dance of the Dispossessed: Bangarra Dance Theatre's Bennelong

Bangarra Dance Theatre performing Bennelong. (Photo: Vishal Pandey)

Even non-Australians are familiar with Bennelong Point, a former tidal island in New South Wales that since the early 1970s has served as the home of the Sydney Opera House. Architect Jørn Utzon's sculptural design, inspired by a segmented orange but looking more like the white sails of the convict ships that first landed at this very location in 1788, has made Bennelong Point internationally famous as a World Heritage Site. More than eight million international tourists visit the promontory each year, participating in a sort of pilgrimage of high Western culture.

The building is so strikingly innovative that few notice the layers of history lying underfoot in the surrounding stones. Bennelong Point is so named because this is where once stood the brick hut occupied by an Aboriginal man born of the Eora clan in 1764. It had been built for him by the British, who founded a penal colony on his ancestral lands. His name was Woollarawarre Bennelong and, more than 200 years since his death in 1813 in the nearby suburb of Putney, he has returned to the place that bears his name to retell his story.

Directly assisting in his resurrection is Stephen Page, artistic director and chief choreographer of Sydney's Bangarra Dance Theatre, the critically acclaimed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander company which has been seamlessly blending indigenous storytelling traditions with modern dance technique and contemporary movement styles for the past 28 years. Bennelong is Page's latest creation and it dynamically recounts the life story of the first indigenous Australian to forge an alliance with the Europeans.

A haunting work of original dance-theatre, the 70-minute piece is as visceral as it is evocative in reviving a key figure from Australia's colonial past. Visually and aurally arresting and showcasing myth and ritual in an intimate pas de deux with fact-driven reality, Bennelong goes a long way in confirming that choreography coming out of Australia right now ranks among the best in the world. It is fearless and bold, much like the country itself.

That intrepidness informs Bennelong as a whole, a daring and also dark work which redrafts history to strengthen the voice of the victims more than that of the victors, as is usually the case. It is a collaborative effort that includes, among its many highlights, a shifting soundscape sprinkled with spoken word, sea shanties, "Rule Britannia" and other musical excerpts by composer Steve Francis, mood-enhancing lighting by Nick Schlieper, epoch-defining costumes by Jennifer Irwin, and a minimal yet stunning set design by Jacob Nash featuring a suspended ring of smoking ochre, representing the Aboriginal pathway to the spiritual world.

Dramaturge Alana Valentine helped shape the dance into 16 interconnecting scenes that capture the cinematic sweep of Bennelong's complicated life journey, from birth to death. Page's invigorating choreography is by turns fluid and rhythmic, with foot stomping and undulating arms, kangaroo jumps and slow coiling solos as wispy as spiderwebs. Animating the wordless narrative is the athletic and nuanced dancing performed by Bangarra’s 18-strong ensemble, led here by the sharp and wiry Beau Dean Riley Smith, a bearded dancer from the Wiradjuri Nation of Central New South Wales, in the titular role.

Beau Dean Riley Smith as Woollarawarre Bennelong in Bennelong. (Photo: Vishal Pandey)

Fittingly, the work, which Australian critics are hailing as Page's masterpiece, had its world premiere at the end of June at the Sydney Opera House, on Bennelong Point, closing a month later on July 29. Presently on a cross-country tour that just touched down in Canberra and continues next to Brisbane for a week of performances starting on Aug. 25, followed by Melbourne for another week beginning Sept. 7Bennelong is both a homecoming and a point of departure for revisiting a historic figure whose personal experiences with cultural collusion and collision continue to influence Australian society today.

In real life, Bennelong had forged an important partnership with Arthur Phillip (dancer Daniel Riley), the Royal Navy officer who founded the first penal colony in New South Wales in 1788, serving as governor. Bennelong also was a leader and a warrior, highly regarded by members of his extended tribe. He is said to be the first Australian Aboriginal to learn how to speak and write English, a skill which enabled him to act as an intermediary between the First Nations and Europeans during the period of Australian history known as First Contact.

The friendship between Bennelong and Governor Phillip, if it could be called that, was convoluted to say the least. In the dance, when they first meet, they sniff each other warily like animals, careful not to get too close. But establishing contact with the native population was a primary goal for England. In 1789, Governor Phillip had Bennelong kidnapped and forcibly held, along with a fellow Eora man, in order to extract from him knowledge about indigenous language and customs. While the other prisoner quickly found a way out of his confinement, Bennelong, who could have fled with him, stayed put. It is said that he was as intrigued by the British as the British were by him.

Bennelong eventually did escape, six months later, only to return to the colony to resume contact with Governor Phillip as a free man and on his own terms. Either as retaliation for the kidnapping, or as an act of conciliation (interpretations of the actual event differ), a tribesman speared Governor Phillip through the shoulder when he attempted to reconnect with Bennelong during an Eora feast party on Manly Island in 1790. Apparently, there were no hard feelings.

A year later Governor Phillip, who had fully recovered from the surprise attack, was building Bennelong a new home on the shores of the cove; another year after that, Bennelong, accompanied by fellow clan member Yemmerawanye (dancer Yolanda Lowatta) was journeying with the Governor back to London where he was presented to King George III and other members of the British aristocracy. Bennelong, dressed in white people's clothes and aping their manners at table, performed a song along with a dance, the minuet. The steps, meticulously recorded at the time, have been preserved for posterity.

To 18th-century sophisticates, the savages from Australia were exotics, freak-show attractions. The novelty soon worn off. Yemmerawanye died soon after in England of smallpox. Page depicts the epidemic as an expressionistic tableaux of writhing, convulsing bodies and Yemmerawanye's death as the end of a fad.

Tara Robertson, Kaine Sultan-Babij and Beau Dean Riley Smith in Bennelong. (Photo: Daniel Boud)

Yemmerawanye's body exits the stage on the hems of a ball gown worn by an English lady who is oblivious to his humanity. The perception that the original Australians were subhuman, without feeling or morality and beneath contempt, is chillingly represented by a clinical recitation of Aboriginal body parts which were once prized as antiquities. Stored in museums, some of the ghoulish relics are still awaiting repatriation.

Other indigenous people also fell victim to smallpox after making contact with the Europeans. But Bennelong managed to avoid that fate. He had other problems. Upon returning to Australia in 1795 he was a changed man, reportedly diminished by drink and alienated from his people for having gone too far to the other side. Page presents him not as a national hero but as a man who has made a Faustian deal with the devil, losing his soul in the transaction. Back in Australia, Bennelong beats his wife, Barangaroo (Jasmin Sheppard), during a drunken rage and loses the respect and support of his tribe. Alienation becomes his legacy.

In an adjacent scene Bennelong appears suddenly in blue jeans, his chest and feet bare, transported to the 21st century.  He dances in an urban setting along with other similarly dressed and disenfranchised Aboriginal men. Past events have present consequences. By making contact with the British, convincing his people to move in close around them, Bennelong unconsciously but irrevocably altered a way of life that had existed in Australia for more than 40,000 years prior to the arrival of the Europeans. It's a huge burden to carry. Page refuses to lessen the load.

Bennelong was obviously a quick study, clever, sociable and open-minded. Regrettably, these qualities are kept under wraps in the piece, Page generally choosing to present Bennelong as preyed upon more than in control of his fate. This is a significant flaw that tends to make the choreography feel didactic in places. Portraits of Bennelong painted in the history books are typically more complex. Governor Phillip, by all accounts a resourceful and pragmatic man as well as a highly effective leader, is also something of a flat character, sacrificed to a theme of loss and prejudice. Bennelong offers up an impressionistic reading of history.

Page does not acknowledge any of the honours bestowed on Bennelong during his lifetime and after his death, including a seat in the Australian parliament named after him. In the dance, Bennelong is a sad and lonely tragic figure who loses his identity along with his liberty when he agrees to live in that brick hut erected long ago on today's Bennelong Point. But you can't begrudge his point of view. Page's interpretation of historic events is artistically and ethically motivated. It rises from an acute awareness of the racism, discrimination and injustice that has plagued the First Nations of Australia since the colonial era, and it packs a wallop. The final scene showing Bennelong entrapped by historical circumstances is especially powerful.

As the silvery blocks of stone of his new prison-like home rise high around him, enclosing and ultimately suffocating him, Bennelong disappears entirely from view. All that's left is a monument – cold to the touch, and incapable of telling the whole emotional story.

– Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York, the Dance Gazette in London, and NUVO in Vancouver, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press) and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds (Vintage Books). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail for the last 32 years, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic, from 1985 until 2001, before transitioning to the Style section as its senior fashion reporter in Milan, Paris, New York and cities across Canada. Her other accomplishments at Canada's paper of record include stints as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime, a weekly lifestyle columnist covering the Toronto International Film Festival and celebrities, rock critic, business writer and cultural bureau chief in Montreal covering the arts in Quebec and Eastern Canada. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she has also written for a wide range of international titles, including Marie Claire in London, Elle in New York and Vogue Australia. Recipient of the 2014 Nathan Cohen Award for Excellence in Theatre Criticism (Long Form Category), Canada's most important arts writing prize, she is presently at work on her next book, an examination of The Beatles and their style.

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