Of all the dance programs this fall, I had been looking forward to Bangarra Dance Theatre as the one that would be the most unusual and possibly the most thrilling. Fresh from a run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Bangarra presented Bush at NCSU's Stewart Theatre on October 28 – and it felt a little flat.
Bangarra Dance Theatre is at once a modern dance company and an Aboriginal one. That is, this Sydney, Australia-based company is made up of dancers who, in some degree, claim Aboriginal blood and heritage, and the dances they make carry on ancient spiritual and movement traditions – while infusing them with modern dance and music idioms. This is the type of piquant performance art that formerly one would have seen in the Triangle only in a Duke Institute of the Arts (now Duke Performances) presentation, but while that series has grown tamer, the NCSU Center Stage programming has grown bolder, and adventurous theater-goers would be well-advised to check the Center Stage schedule when making their season plans.
Bush, while not a ravishing artwork, certainly had its high spots, and to be fair, it is possible I would have responded better had I not be in a state of sinus distress from the incense smoke with which the company filled the theater. It literally dimmed the room. Visually, it was an effective method to transport us to "Dreamtime," the creation time, in which some of the dances were set, but the smoke was hard on the breathing apparatus.
Bush comprises nine dances, some of which have multiple sub-sections. All but two are based on Aboriginal ceremonies or myths and evoke the beliefs and rituals of an ancient culture. As usual in creative work with this kind of basis, there is an uneasy tension between the art and its sources. When a ceremony is taken out of its private community context and exposed to the larger world, it can lose as much as the world may gain. And the question always arises: Are we seeing the real, the "authentic" ceremonial behavior, or is that still hidden from us by the very art that purports to reveal it?
In some of these dances, such questions didn't matter. "Life Cycle" is a universal concept, and Bangarra expressed it beautifully, making it as fresh as it is eternal. Leaf – caterpillar – moth: the metamorphoses were seamless and magical. The powerful dancer Kathy Balngayngu Marika, who was the focal point of most of the dances, became the leaf so fully that her human self was almost forgotten. (She is a senior woman and a tradition-keeper of her Rirratijingu clan, and a guest with Bangarra.) "Life Cycle," appropriately, balanced images and movement in its circle.
Several of the dances, like "Dots" and "The Call," were less well balanced, although "Slither," in which a sacred worm (Sidney Saltner, all in silver) emerges from the earth to give knowledge to the female keepers of wisdom, was very fine. And the final dance, "Ceremony" with its component parts of Water, Passing, Gift and Clan, was replete with striking images.
The visual aspects of Bush were greatly strengthened by Jennifer Irwin's inventive costumes, but the most fully satisfying aspect of the performance was the music. All the music was written by either resident composer David Page or Steve Francis, and although they did not collaborate on the individual pieces, clearly they worked together to create an unfractured whole. And with their inspired mix of traditional sounds and trancy electronica they achieved more fully than some of the dances Bangarra's goal of communicating the simultaneous age and modernity of Aboriginal culture. These sounds, as much as or more than the movement, told of on-goingness, of cycle and change, and the everlasting return of dreamtime.