This year Bangarra marks 25 years as an indigenous Australian performing arts company celebrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and history. At Patyegarang’s opening night, artistic contemporary is entwined with traditional indigenous dance, accompanied by long spears as props and iconic white body paint that creates small puffs of dust as the dancers move, absorbing light into a haze.

Bangarra: Patyegarang © Jess Bialek
Bangarra: Patyegarang
© Jess Bialek

When the Bangarra dancers take the stage, it’s as though they are an extension of the earth. The Sydney Opera House stage is framed by a rugged rock backdrop, lit from beneath in gamboge orange. The shadows hug every crevice, creating a striking three-dimensional effect. Dancers perform deeply grounded locomotive movements on a constant bended leg, with a relentless connection to the floor through a shoulder, knee or clutching fingers before sweeping up into looping turns.  

The earthy movements of Stephen Page’s choreography and tones of the dancers’ costuming are a humble nod to the first people of Australia who lived off the land: traditional hunting and gathering motifs are present and angular movements drive the piece, with flexed feet and bent wrists breaking lines. The females wear textured dresses in a peachy sandstone colour palette with uniquely weaved backs and fabric of different lengths. At one point in an expressive floor work section, their long skirts are stretched up over their heads, creating an amazing blur of legs and arms.

The narrative is pulled straight from the documented diaries of Lieutenant William Dawes, who arrived in Australia on the colonial fleet in the 18th century. The piece presents the awakening spirit of 15-year-old Patyegarang, performed by Jasmin Sheppard. She inspires our knowledge of ‘first contact’, as Patyegarang shares with Dawes the culture and language of Eora country, now known as the heart of Sydney. Artistic Director Stephen Page says, “They had a great love of cultural knowledge… they had a great love of language... She would teach him the indigenous way, he would teach her the white way. And by the end of it I just think they just had a wonderful respect for each culture.”

Jasmin Sheppard: Patyegarang © Jess Bialek
Jasmin Sheppard: Patyegarang
© Jess Bialek

The work imagines the pair’s friendship or possible romance, dancing beneath a suspended starry night sky. Thomas Greenfield performs as Lieutenant Dawes, an astronomer, mathematician and linguist. Watching the energy that flows through his extensions, it is difficult to believe Greenfield’s formal dance training only began at age 21, but his kick-boxing and break-dancing background has certainly put him in great stead for the world of contemporary.

More broadly, the piece tackles issues of racial segregation. In confronting silence, dancers stare blankly forward dressed in 18th century clothing, triggering a sense of Western guilt for the non-indigenous members of the audience. It was refreshing to see cultural distinctions shattered as a woman painted black and a man painted white stand on a box and have their colour rubbed off in a powerful statement about human sameness, a notion that has challenged Australian reconciliation for two centuries.

The indigenous language drives the music with clacking sticks reverberating, contrasted with heavy heartbeat sounds, a calming harp piece and an unnerving gun shot scene. The musical score serves to play up the cultural tensions here as we see men in red coats with white crosses dragging the dancers onto the stage, heaving them by their neck or slumped over shoulder. One dancer is held upside down behind a male’s back, before collapsing to the ground.

I thought the work lacked rhythm at some points, hoping it would peak — with the exception of one section featuring a circle of men performing strong movements to a dramatic, driving tempo. The work had admirable light and shade in costuming, lighting and musical arrangement, though a greater contrast in choreography would have sustained audience engagement. I was also eager to see the brilliant rhythmic body percussion featured in previous works, absent from this piece. Nevertheless, Patyegarang takes you on an insightful historical journey and achieved a standing ovation from one-third of the audience on opening night.