On a clear evening in Australia, one can look up and see the constellational shape of the Dark Emu stretched out across the night sky. Representing the Australian Aboriginal creator spirit Baiame, the Emu-in-the-Sky has featured for thousands of years in Australian astronomy. And it was on this beautiful and ancient image that Bangarra’s Dark Emu opened, with the stage set so that one gazed down a heavenly vault of dark concentric rings, across which the dancers turned like celestial bodies.

Beau Dean Riley Smith, Kane Sultan-Babij and Yolanta Lowatta in <i>Dark Emu</i> © Daniel Boud
Beau Dean Riley Smith, Kane Sultan-Babij and Yolanta Lowatta in Dark Emu
© Daniel Boud

As artistic director and choreographer Stephen Page has alluded to, the Emu can be seen by those who know how to see – by looking past the pinpoint stars of the Milky Way and focusing instead on its great galactic dust clouds. This is the “darkness between the stars”, and a symbol for the ideas of perception and land that form the heart of Dark Emu.

The dance was inspired by Bruce Pascoe’s popular, award-winning book of the same name – an extensively-researched tract outlining the intellectualism and elegance of Aboriginal land management traditions. Pascoe’s book is deeply environmental and historical, depicting the millennia-old understanding between Aboriginals and the land, and the sophisticated knowledge that has arisen from the relationship. It is equally socio-political, connected to the Australian “history wars” of the 1990s, the debate surrounding Australian identity and race relations, and the reductionist approach to Aboriginals as unsophisticated hunter-gatherers. If this seems a challenging choice for dance, Bangara – in the words of co-choreographer Daniel Riley – has a gift for “opening conversations to political, social, current, and historical stories”.

Dark Emu, though, proved to be as much dance poetry as socio-political conversation. Much like Pascoe’s book, it was structured in descriptively-titled chapters, each focusing on a particular land practice or impact of colonisation. Examples included ‘Ceremony of Seed’, ‘Bogong Moth Harvest’, and ‘Resilience of Culture’. Unlike Pascoe’s book, however, the choreography did not try to recount each practice, but instead sought to capture its core meaning and spiritual significance. The effect was like watching a series of beautifully-drawn vignettes drift past, each steeped in a deep lyricism, and each reminding us that Bangarra draws profound cultural richness from millennia on millennia of Australian dancers. The only drawback to this chaptered, contemplative structure was that it pulled on the narrative arc, and I felt the work would have benefitted structurally from a greater build in intensity and pacing as it progressed towards the closing scene.

Bangarra in <i>Dark Emu</i> © Daniel Boud
Bangarra in Dark Emu
© Daniel Boud
Dark Emu’s striking production elements deserve special mention in their own right. In an abstract dance about land and place, they were essential in creating the orienting context for each vignette. Jennifer Irwin’s costumes displayed an ingenious use of fabric and texture, allowing the dancers to clothe themselves in rain, kangaroo grass, and fire. Steve Francis’ score achieved strong atmosphere through a skilled integration of sound sampling, opening the imagination to a vast bush soundscape of breezes, running water, wings, and buzzing flies. The recordings of traditional songs were special highlights, and I only wish there had been more.

I was also impressed with Jacob Nash’s design. Many of the vignettes featured a central prop (such as a banksia cone, cattle fences, or whale bones) around which the dance revolved, both physically and symbolically. These were beautifully crafted and deeply evocative. The smooth giant pebbles carried by the men in ‘Rocks of Knowledge’, for example, seemed to glisten with living water.

Finally, one cannot evoke the Australian landscape without understanding its light, whether in the southern stars, the strong glare of the Australian sun, or the thick red haze of bushfires. These were all beautifully recreated by Sian James-Holland’s lighting design.

The dancing itself was gracefully executed. Essentially an ensemble piece, Dark Emu highlighted the artistic and physical unity of Bangarra’s dancers, dotted with standout solos from the charismatic Elma Kris as well as Yolanda Lowatta, Beau Dean Riley Smith, and Waangenga Blanco. The work also proved, yet again, that Bangarra continues to contain some of Australia’s best male dancing, with the men showcasing the charismatic masculinity, strength, and attack that are hallmarks of the company.

Interestingly, if I hadn’t read the program beforehand I wouldn’t have guessed the movement was crafted by multiple choreographers (credited as Page, Riley, Yolande Brown, “and the dancers of Bangarra”), since Dark Emu displays all the characteristics of Bangarra’s style. It was heartening, though, to see Page fostering choreographic endeavours amongst his dancers. As Dark Emu so clearly demonstrates, Bangarra is uniquely positioned to pose responsive and topical questions whilst drawing on thousands of years of cultural and spiritual tradition. The fact that it does this through beautifully crafted contemporary dance is even more remarkable, and makes it an important voice for our times and those to come.