Ochres celebrates the legacy of Bangarra Dance Theatre – The Australian
November 23, 2015
By Simone Fox Koob
Paul Keating was championing indigenous rights, the Native Title Act had just been passed, and the world was in the throes of the UN’s Year of Indigenous Peoples when a 26-year-old Stephen Page burst on to the arts scene with Bangarra Dance Theatre.
A four-part contemporary dance piece titled Ochres, inspired by the pigment so central to Aboriginal life, took the Australian dance industry by storm. More than two decades on and the artistic director says the buzzing cultural climate and growing support for indigenous rights in those early years allowed companies like his to stamp their names on the arts landscape.
“We were at a great time of our lives, and surrounded by the right people at the right time,” says Page. “The good will of the creative vision was supported. That philosophy and that strength has carried through over the last 26 years.”
A new generation of Bangarra dancers will celebrate that legacy next week in a short revival season of Ochres, co-choreographed by Bernadette Walong-Sene, with a rare appearance by another integral Bangarra figure, Aboriginal elder and Yolgnu songman Djakapurra Munyarryun.
Munyarryun joined the company in 1991 as a cultural consultant and provided the first concrete link between the metropolitan dance company and the families of northeast Arnhem Land.
Page says this connection allowed Bangarra to create dance and movement pieces that fused the traditional stories, songs and dances of indigenous Australia with the contemporary style that Bangarra had been developing since the company began in 1989.
“Before that we used to just do a traditional dance first, and then we would do a contemporary dance following that. With Ochres we were able to weave together the crossover of traditional and contemporary.
“Thirty-five productions later it was the one that seeded that crossover style and the language that Bangarra carries today.”
It was this new dance vocabulary that “opened a lot of doors” for the company, garnering the interest of government funding bodies and the attention of other major dance companies, such as the Australian Ballet.
“It happened quite rapidly, and Ochres did change people’s psyche. It shifted the consciousness of the dance industry,” Page says.
The company has just arrived home from a nine-week regional tour of Australia, with overseas performances planned and the Ochres season opening at Carriageworks on November 27.
The company Page has spent half his life with has flourished more than he could have imagined. “It’s still one of the only performing indigenous arts company in this country. It’s a foundation that has really grown,” he says.
Image: Tara Gower from Bangarra Dance Theatre at Walsh Bay in Sydney preparing for the company’s upcoming show Ochres. Picture: John Feder