This year Bangarra turns 30, celebrating with the triple bill 30 years of sixty five thousand. The name refers to the 65,000 years during which Indigenous culture has graced the Australian continent, making it the world’s oldest living culture. This is partly why Bangarra is always so exciting to watch. Their dances are contemporary works embodying the living spirit of millennia of dance wisdom, sometimes making the Swan Lakes and Nutcrackers look like mere babes in the woods.

<i>Stamping Ground</i> © Daniel Boud
Stamping Ground
© Daniel Boud

That great modern master of dance, Jiří Kylián, recognised this on his first trip to Australia in 1980, initiating the historic Groote Eylandt corroboree of over a thousand Indigenous dancers. The experience moved Kylián profoundly, inspiring the evening’s second work, Stamping Ground – originally choreographed for Nederlands Dans Theater. I was a teenager in semi-rural Australia when I first saw Stamping Ground, the NDT dancers tiny and grainy on our school’s ancient VHS-player. Our dance classroom looked out onto vistas of sky and bush, originally land of the Darug people. And knowing of the connection between dance and country, it made me wonder what Stamping Ground would look like on Bangarra, who would understand Kylián’s references to the relationship between the body’s weight, the feet, and the land. But in fact Bangarra did not exist when Kylián choreographed Stamping Ground. Artistic Director Stephen Page was still a student at NAISDA Dance College, watching Kylian’s works (probably also on grainy VHS), and it was largely unheard of for Indigenous dance to have a mainline presence in Australian arts at all.

<i>Stamping Ground</i> © Daniel Boud
Stamping Ground
© Daniel Boud

Fast forward to the Sydney Opera House in 2019. Stamping Ground marks the first time Bangarra has presented the work of a non-Indigenous artist. A momentous occasion considering the great historic and symbolic implications of Stamping Ground "coming home" in this way, made more profound because it opened with archival footage of a young Kylián describing the Groote Eylandt corroboree. The work sits beautifully on Bangarra, who give it the energising groundedness which schoolgirl me had suspected was the missing puzzle piece on NDT’s dancers. Kylián’s choreography has not dated, with the audience clearly delighted by its whimsical intricacies and humour. In hindsight, it says much about his artistic genius and humanity – that he instinctively recognised the extraordinary beauty of Australian Indigenous dance at a time when it was overlooked or devalued by Australian governments and most Australians themselves. 30 years of sixty five thousand is worth seeing if just to witness the historical significance of Stamping Ground on Bangarra.

<i>to make fire</i> © Daniel Boud
to make fire
© Daniel Boud

Fittingly though, it was Bangarra pieces that opened and closed the triple bill. The first was Frances Ring’s Unaipon, her 2004 celebration of the life of David Unaipon, her first major choreographic work, and the first of Bangarra’s biographical narratives. For my part it was hard to watch Unaipon without missing Patrick Thaiday, who originated the role and was undoubtedly one of the great Australian male dancers of the previous decade. Without his stage presence, Unaipon’s ensemble work takes on more prominence, featuring Rings’s thoughtful partnering choreography. She was this year appointed Bangarra's first Associate Artistic Director, and is Page's likely successor, so this is an excellent opportunity for audiences to get to know her work.

<i>Unaipon</i> © Daniel Boud
Unaipon
© Daniel Boud

The final piece was To Make Fire (the translation of “Bangarra”), an amalgam of highlights from Bangarra’s past 30 years. There are excerpts from Mathinna, the story of a Tasmanian girl forcibly removed from home and adopted, then rejected, by colonial society; scenes from About, the story of the connection between Torres Strait Islanders and the four winds; and Clan, celebrating the continuation of Indigenous knowledge. This retrospective is a reminder of how keenly the spirit of Bangarra’s work can speak. At its very best, Bangarra can transcend to a seamless symbiosis of dancer, dance, story, and place; with a depth of humanity and history that is very rare in even the best mainstream dance companies. One comes away with the unique sense of having seen a unified vision. There is none of the usual subtle – but present – delineation between dancer, choreography, and production elements. We are very blessed to have Stephen Page and Bangarra, who have created a unique vocabulary and dance space and remind us how powerful dance can be.

<i>Unaipon</i> © Daniel Boud
Unaipon
© Daniel Boud

Late last year, research from the Australian Council of the Arts showed that the arts had outstripped casinos, sport, and wineries as the main reason for international tourism – and particularly Indigenous art. With Bangarra it is easy to see why, and a wake-up call to Australians to recognise the value of what they have. Here’s to a future where Bangarra’s commitment to storytelling and our ability to listen continue to grow together.

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