Bangarra Dance Company: Bush @ Sadler’s Wells, London

Stephen Page and Frances Rings
Bangarra are an interesting and unique Australian dance company, who specialise in expressing stories from the country’s near-obliterated aboriginal heritage through the filter of modern dance sensibilities.

Bush, the production currently on tour in the UK, evokes the centuries-old belief system of the aboriginal people through a series of visually striking episodes. Dancers creep on all-fours, their faces painted, contorting their bodies in a reptilian fashion, while the shards of light behind them conjure up images of the sun rising over the outback sands. At other times, the performers stalk the stage, their movements dictated by bamboo-like canes clasped in each hand. Theses segments have a tantalising mystical quality and exude a strong sense of place; but some of the other, later sections are far more abstract and as such harder to connect with.

At the centre of this spirit-ridden world is Kathy Balngayagu Marika, a senior tribal woman and aboriginal community elder. This woman, though not a professional performer, adds a necessary solidity to the piece and is a strong yet relaxed force on stage, a still presence amongst all the animalistic writhing.

The production is choreographed by Bangarra’s artistic director Stephen Page and by Frances Rings (both have aboriginal ancestry as do all the members of the company) and features an effective, eclectic musical score by Steve Francis and David Page – a mix of traditional aboriginal chanting, contemporary beats and the eerie early morning noise of the bushland. But, though it runs for only around 75 minutes, the show drags in places. The segmented structure feels very disjointed – there’s no real narrative flow between the individual pieces – some of which make more of an impact than others. It’s also at times rather impenetrable; I longed to know more about the stories being portrayed, but Bush offers the audience only momentary glimpses into this world. The results, though overwhelmingly atmospheric, were at times frustrating in the lack of insight they allowed for.

There’s an unshakeable sense of something missing at the centre of the piece, a need for some unifying element. The presence of Kathy Balngayagu Marika in the cast goes some way to remedy this but somehow it’s not enough. In its later sections Bush grows darker in tone: a lone dancer, Jhuny Boy Borja, twisting and curling his body as a soundtrack made up of the cold, dismissive voices of Western settlers echoes across the stage. It’s one of the more political and concrete sections in what is, ultimately, an ambitious but only occasionally satisfying work.

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