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Flash Review 3, 6-24: Dreamtime
Into the "Bush" with Bangarra

By Chloe Smethurst
Copyright 2003 Chloe Smethurst

MELBOURNE -- Without a second viewing, it's difficult to pass judgment on Stephen Page and Frances Rings's latest work. Performed by Page's company, Bangarra Dance Theatre, at the Playbox June 12, "Bush" is a complex mix of many different images and vignettes. As always with this company, backed by a solid original score (by David Page and Steve Francis) and masterfully evocative sets the dancers had a lot to work with.

The premise for "Bush" is quite spiritual, with choreography that draws upon two different spheres of inspiration. The main concept is that the images have been influenced by indigenous Dreamtime stories, or creation myths, which have been passed down through an oral tradition spanning 40,000 years. The second, and more subtle theme in "Bush," is as a celebration and ceremony for Page's brother and Bangarra dancer Russell, who passed away last July.

With such a weighty subject matter, the work needed a guide, someone to help to draw the strings together. This task was performed by Aboriginal elder Kathy Balngayngu Marika, who remained visible for most of the piece. Baingayngu's presence was that of a spiritual leader, often in the background, providing support and guidance throughout the different scenes that were portrayed.

For me, the style in which Bangarra works has always been one of the most fascinating things about the company. Page and Rings didn't disappoint this time around with their use of traditional indigenous dances blended with inventive contemporary choreography. Their dedication to performing the traditional dances also added to the sense of ritual within the work. Again, without seeing the performance a second time I am loathe to make statements about the quality of the work, but it did seem that some sections were decidedly stronger than others. The parts that I believed worked particularly well were not necessarily the most narrative, which is perhaps a personal bias.
Bangarra Dance Theatre in Stephen Page and Frances Rings's "Bush." Greg Barrett photos courtesy Bangarra Dance Theatre.

The sections titled Bush Pearl and Feather were both created by Page, and contained full and sensual female solos that captured for me the essence of the work. In Feather, described in the program notes as, "preparing the spirit and body for its journey into the next life cycle," soloist Rings danced with a sense of wonder and underlying passion that was infectious. I felt completely drawn into the world that she created on stage.

Conversely, Stick, where the dancers represented spiritual messengers in the form of stick insects, left me feeling rather alienated. While the use of wooden poles to create the illusion of an insect-like shape was interesting, the choreography, in this section by Rings, didn't communicate very much to me.

The finale was built from a combination of four smaller sections under the heading Ceremony. Dressed all in black, the ensemble created a depth of spiritual feeling beautiful to behold. It was here where the influence of Russell Page's death could be felt most strongly, and where perhaps the dancers had been united by their loss. The sections were strongly linked, both stylistically and in the smooth transition from one to another, which added to the impact.

Set design by Peter England added another dimension to the stage, and allowed Marika to look down upon the dancers from a cleverly camouflaged platform. It also gave the dancers mangroves to move through and reflected gorgeous images of feathers and sticks as was appropriate.

In fact all of the work by the supporting artists was magnificent, including music, costuming and lighting. These elements combined to help place Bush in the "galaxy of poetic imagery" that Page invites us to in his program note.

Overall, "Bush" is a work so full of imagery and intention that it was impossible to digest it all in one sitting. Nevertheless, the aftertaste was definitely palatable and very enjoyable.

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