Wudjang: Not the Past marks Stephen Page’s last production as Artistic Director of Bangarra Dance Theatre after almost 32 years. This alone makes Wudjang significant. Those three remarkable decades saw Bangarra trail blaze through Australian history and dance, reshaping national discussions on Indigenous identity. Australia would not be the same without Bangarra – a triumphant story of vision, voice and talent against the odds.

Elma Kris and Lillian Banks in Wudjang: Not the Past
© Daniel Boud

True to Page’s legacy as innovator, Wudjang explores new territory even as it represents his final chapter as Director. In collaboration with Sydney Theatre Company, Wudjang moves beyond Bangarra’s usual dance narrative to embrace theatre and live music (with Alana Valentine credited as Page's co-writer, and music by Steve Francis). Page describes it as “narrative dance theatre and contemporary ceremony”, with the story told by seventeen Bangarra dancers as well as five actor-singers and four musicians. As the spotlights shone down on the actors, singing in the Mibinyah language, and the dancers moved around them in that uniquely Bangarra style, I realised there was nowhere else in Australia (or anywhere else in the world) one could see such a production. I was watching stagecraft exploring the notion of a truly Indigenous dance opera, rock opera or musical, drawing on Indigenous ceremony and corroboree. As far as I know, such a thing has rarely, if ever, been produced before. Other critics have remarked Wudjang defies categorisation or is multi-form – but I think what is actually happening is that Wudjang, with its Indigenous core, explores the creation of a new genre. This experimentation explains the slightly uneven flow from song to dance in some scenes, but its bold approach is also exciting.

Elaine Crombie in Wudjang: Not the Past
© Daniel Boud

At the same time, Wudjang is also intimate. It takes Bangarra into the culture of Page’s family – the Yugambeh people of the Gold Coast Hinterland, his father's people. And it is dedicated to his late brother David, Bangarra’s composer and songman, whom Page remarked he could imagine saying “At last you're telling our story”.

Wudjang opens with the houselights on – spluttering as the clanking of mining equipment fills the auditorium and the audience is transported down a mine shaft before a deafening blast shatters into silence. The stage lights slowly pierce the darkness to reveal a wheel extractor brooding over a dusty cluster of miners (Jacob Nash’s set and Nick Schlieper’s lighting, both strikingly effective). A giant slab of cracked rock protrudes from the ground. The miners are grouped over the ancient remains of Wudjang (meaning “mother”), danced by Bangarra Elder Elma Kris with her usual uniquely assured presence. Wudjang’s remains are protected by Uncle Bilin (Kirk Page), who takes her to a sacred place where she is awakened with her spirit companion Gurai (Lillian Banks in a remarkable performance). Bilin’s niece Nanahng (Jess Hitchcock) is sceptical about the past’s relevance, and so begins her journey with Wudjang as guide.

Elma Kris and Lillian Banks in Wudjang: Not the Past
© Daniel Boud

Their people's story is recounted in eight scenes detailing colonisation, forced labour, massacre, inconsolable loss, and rape of the land and women. A memorable section is the arrival of sheep, featuring Justin Smith as a bizarrely hokey flag-bearing settler. The dancers pour over the rocky outcrop in a yammering swarm of dusty wool, loping and bleating roughly before spasming across the stage. Elaine Crombie, who has remarkable stage presence, is powerful in a ballad about sexual assault, where she declares no man will ever touch her again. Crombie also creates one of the most viscerally confronting scenes of the night. Running round the corner of the outcrop to discover the body of a loved one, screams of such raw grief are ripped from her mouth that you feel the sound pierce your own chest. Crombie is also joined by Tessa Nuku, whose voice has a unique reedy timbre that becomes especially haunting in a lullaby about how love and coercion lay together in the histories of her mixed-race Indigenous ancestors.

Wudjang: Not the Past
© Daniel Boud

Whilst Wudjang confronts the realities of trauma, it also tributes resilience and the beauty of Indigenous identity. These moments, which involve the full Bangarra ensemble in scenes akin to Bangarra’s usual fare, are powerful juxtaposed against the darker scenes. Jennifer Irwin’s costumes – even more detailed and textural than usual – are particularly compelling in communicating that cultural richness. It is here that Nanahng (with Hitchcock singing in a silvery soprano) awakens to the realisation that one cannot have the future without the past.

As Wudjang is laid to rest, the backdrop changes from mining shaft black to an endless blue as a shower of wattle flowers rains on the company like pouring gold. It is a breathtaking moment. As the lights slowly dim, the silhouettes of the performers remain still, alert and eternal on the rocky outcrop. A fitting send-off for Page, and a reflection that Bangarra’s presence channels an ancient and living legacy. 

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