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Flash Review 2, 11-7: "Corroboree" (version 4.0)
Bangarra: Variations on a Tour

By Byron Woods
Copyright 2001 Byron Woods

GREENSBORO, North Carolina -- So, how was Bangarra Dance Theater's "Corroboree"? Under the circumstances, the irresistible question is "Which one?"

There's the version that played in Australia in June of this year, based on the Dreamtime stories of the brolga (a bird from the crane family), the kangaroo and the turtle. But don't confuse that with what the company's web site terms a "best of Bangarra production" by the same name, the one that played in New York and Washington in October.

If you saw that version, you saw more than the rest of the country will. According to the show's producers, the critically acclaimed "Nesting" section in that "Corroboree" was removed after the tour's Brooklyn Academy of Music dates because the required set piece, while apparently light enough for Washington and New York, is too heavy to transport across the rest of the United States.

Plus, if you happen to see the work in a city like Greenville, SC, you'll encounter a fourth, bowdlerized version, in which the adult language of the sequence "Roo" has been edited out -- presumably along with much of the social criticism so recently praised in the Village Voice, Washington Post and New York Times.

In Greensboro, North Carolina, where I saw it, "Roo" fell victim instead to technical vagaries when an overhead water system could not be installed in Aycock Auditorium by show time. As a result, we apparently saw the version bound for South Carolina -- the one with no bad words (and little contemporary commentary). Additionally, Sidney Salter's solo, "Cocoon," was moved to after "Roo" -- without the benefit of either a change in program or an announcement from the stage. All of which makes the show we saw either version 4.0 or 4.1 of this inconstant pageant -- by now I confess I've lost count.

It's curious that the same name can be ethically applied to four productions of differing content and, apparently, conscience. It's even more curious when that name, "Corroboree," is purported to refer to sacred space and ritual, as Stephen Page notes in his overtly "spiritualized" program notes.

True, the term "Corroboree" does refer not to one but a group of ceremonies that originally covered the social, political and religious lives of the Darug people in what is modern-day New South Wales. And Laguna Pueblo novelist Leslie Marmon Silko reminds us that change is a part of all living rituals.

But when those changes seem mere capitulations to expedience, taste -- or a promoter's willingness to hear harsh language -- we begin to doubt their authenticity. For all I know, the Drepung Loesling Tibetan monks change their song list every night as well. Still, people crowd into their public enactments despite the total lack of synthesizers, fog machines, breakdance quotes and techno-beat music in their performances.

Bangarra Dance Theater's choices in North America, on the other hand, have made "Corroboree" something of a mix-and-match, malleable, movable feast, readily adaptable to the prevailing winds while at the same time claiming the steadfastness of a indigenous spiritual tradition dating back to pre-history. Absolutely flexible to taste, in short, while claiming absolute integrity.

How enviable. Not to mention unlikely.

Would that we could say the same for its choreography.

For all of his published good intentions regarding spirituality and togetherness, in this work we saw choreographer Stephen Page unequally yoke a number of relatively brief -- and, indeed, refreshing -- indigenous motifs to considerably lengthier modern dance sequences that rarely rose above the level of boilerplate.

From the initial, admittedly strong imagery of Djakapurra Munyarryan's body painting ritual in "Awakening," six company women used African-tinged movement in "Hunting and Gathering" to bear branches across the earth before sweeping with them and digging at the dusty ground for sustenance. But unfortunately, the overproduced and anachronistic studio music accompany this didn't just come from another world. It proceeded to abduct the choreography and return there. Primitive, meet neo-primitive. Care to dance?

Elma Kris's frantic, harrowing -- and above all, sincere -- solo work in mid-section gives us a glimpse of what "Corroboree" could have been if all movers and movement were as committed to exploring the world invoked here. We see similar moments of authenticity and modern dance combined in Kris's solo in "Toxic," a vivid representation of systemic cultural poisoning. Sidney Salter's swimming solo in "Cocoon" and Russell Page and Frances Ring's pas de deux in "White" also have such savor.

But elsewhere, movement too frequently seemed as homogenized as the smooth production values utilized throughout the work. Musical anachronisms similar to those noted above compromise what the program calls "the sacred and powerful initiation ceremony" alleged to be enacted in "Dingo."

What appeared to be pop-and-lock b-boy quotes on the part of the initiate in mid-"ceremony" do not reinforce our confidence in such spiritual claims.

Still, there are moments of undeniable passion in "Corroboree," when the dancers make the white clay pigment that covers their bodies fly. And the end sequence of "Roo," in which a tribe is apparently snuffed out to the amplified sound of a final breath going out, is nothing less than chilling.

But the preponderance of safer, stylized moments -- along with savvy lights, considerable fog machine output, and ultra-smooth and ultra-questionable electronic dance music backing "native ritual" -- render this version of "Corroboree" something of an aboriginal "Riverdance" in the making. It's smooth, slick -- and thus at an aesthetic remove from a people's home truths.

Occasionally, we intuit something fundamental peeking through. But for the main, we somehow sense that the Dreamtime dances differently than these manufactured representations of difference.

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