Bangarra Aboriginal dance company to perform Ochres for anniversary – Sydney Morning Herald
November 22, 2015
By Stephanie Wood
Local kids left their basketball game and peered in through the windows. Inside, the dancers of the young Bangarra Aboriginal dance company stood and watched in awe. Barely out of his teenage years and freshly down from north-east Arnhem Land, Djakapurra Munyarryun rolled and jumped and danced in a rehearsal space in Redfern’s police youth club.
“Purra would be right in there, rolling over on his back; he could do the modern movement better than we would and he had no training,” recalls Stephen Page, Bangarra’s artistic director.
It was 1994 and Page and his collaborator, Bernadette Walong-Sene, were choreographing Black, one of the four sections of Bangarra’s Ochres, a watershed production that would lay the foundations for the company’s future.
“The more contemporary components of Ochres became the footprint as a dance language for future repertoire,” says Page, “boss man” to the company’s dancers.
As a “cultural consultant” to the original production, Djakapurra Munyarryun contributed traditional insight, stories, language, movement and song from his steamy country at the intersection of freshwater and saltwater near Yirrkala.
On Friday evening, Munyarryun’s haunting voice will echo through a shadowy Carriageworks performance space as the dance company launches its 21st anniversary return season of Ochres. It is the first time since 1995 that the production has been performed in its entirety.
The Yolngu songman will sing a traditional cleansing song at the beginning of Ochres. But 21 years older, and no longer the agile figure that captivated Bangarra audiences in the mid-’90s and appeared before Nikki Webster during the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics in 2000, he will not dance.
Nevertheless, Page is thrilled that his friend can be involved in the anniversary production. “Djakapurra was instrumental in all the male energy in its traditional form in Ochres.”
The production is a celebration of the four colours of ochre – yellow, black, red and white – which has enormous significance in Aboriginal ceremonies. “Different forms of ochre … are painted on bodies with different totemic stories and then the body will get up and celebrate the spirit through dance,” Page says.
Each colour marks a different section of the production: yellow pays homage to the strength of women. “It talks about the maternal, the hunting and gathering, the birthing, the caring of culture.”
The black section focuses on the strength of men, and the challenges they face in traditional or contemporary culture. “[There’s] native-tongue male calling, and it has a warrior wardance in there about building your energy and building your strength so when you go out and hunt you are able to survive that hunt.”
The red section “is purely about men and women coming together”, while white is a “contemporary ceremony” about the spiritual world.
The production remains substantially the same as the original incarnation. “What’s new is a whole new generation of dancers are digesting this contemporary-traditional classic,” Page says. “And my theory is that cultural stories and heritage stories and traditional stories are always rejuvenated in time and they evolve.
“I think the main thing Bangarra has been able to do strongly over the last 26 years is be entrusted with traditional stories that are hundreds of years old and take the essence of them, and at the same time maintain the integrity, even though you’re shifting it in this contemporary expression or you’re shifting it in a stylistic way.”
Ochres is at Carriageworks from November 27 to December 5.
Image: Bangarra dancer Stephen Page (front) and consultant Djakapurra Munyarryun. Photo: Nic Walker