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Bangarra Dance Theatre: Dark Emu, Sydney, June 2018

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Bangarra is Australia's indigenous contemporary dance theatre. It is centrally concerned with re-establishing, maintaining and celebrating the connection to country that lies at the heart of aboriginal culture. In the words of Stephen Page,  Artistic Director and chief choreographer of Bangarra (for Dark Emu, he shares choreographic honours with Yolande Brown and Daniel Riley), Dark Emu 'explores the sacred and creation spaces of the cosmos; the relationship between sky and earth, between land and the seasons, ... the rituals and ceremonies that are in step with the pulse of the land, but also the devastating assaults on land and spirit that came with colonisation.'

Dark Emu: the title is an analogy. When aboriginal astronomers looked at the sky, the figures they saw were not created by joining points of light, as Europeans do. Rather they looked to the darkness between the stars. You can see the dark emu; his head is slightly below the Southern Cross. But in order to do so, you have to look in a different way. Dark Emu is the title of an influential book by Bruce Pascoe. In it, he cites the many accounts of early settlers and explorers, and archeological traces today, to argue that aboriginals were not hunter gatherers. They were skilled farmers, but to see this, you have to look at the history we have been taught in a different way, and change our conception of what successful agriculture in the Australian context involves. This, by the way, is the first time my homework before a performance has involved consideration of different forms of agriculture.

The work involves 14 sements, one blending seamlessly into the next, firstly celebrating the farming, fishing and land management practices of the indigenous people before documenting the chaos, destruction and death that came with colonisation. My heart was lacerated. Finally, the whole company joins together in celebrating the resilience of culture, the wonder and power that nurtures earth, sea and sky (as the program puts it). The performance opens and closes with an invocation of the dark emu, creator spirit, creation emerging from the dark as it does from silence and emptiness in Zen Buddism. 

The performance involves no solos or pdd (one of  the very few times a single dancer is on stage is when he is the sole survivor of a massacre). Groups of dancers, three, five, eight or more, dance together, each one dancing individually, but the  relationship between them taking precedence. In their dance, the raising of a bent leg, the angle of a foot, the position of the torso at times references movement  in traditional dance. 

Dark Emu is a profoundly important work and one that will stay with me for some time. And on a lighter note, I think the title Dark Emu wins the competition for most evocative dance title in 2018, and maybe of the decade.

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I have now read at least two reviews that pay homage to multiple solos in Dark Emu. Try as I might, I do not remember them, for which I can only humbly apologise to the respective dancers. I was completely engrossed in the ensemble exploration of traditional practices, and in the depiction of the catastrophe of colonialism. My thought then and now, almost a week later, is, 'This is enormously important', and I have spent quite a lot of time urging friends to see it (and buying another ticket myself). It is a really important work, for Australians and for anyone 'interested' (poor word choice) in the consequences of colonialism.

Edited by jmb
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  • John Mallinson changed the title to Bangarra Dance Theatre: Dark Emu, Sydney, June 2018

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