Review by Anja Bless
Showing as part of Sydney Festival, the latest work by Bangarra Dance Theatre (in collaboration with Sydney Theatre Company), Wudjang: Not the Past has taken the scale and the breadth of their performances to a new level. The acclaimed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisation and performing arts company brings this latest story not only through dance, but also through song, poetry, live music, and spoken storytelling.
Directed and choreographed by Bangarra Artistic Director, Stephen Page, Wudjang: Not the Past tells the story of an ancestor, Wudjang, whose bones are disturbed and who yearns to be reburied in her traditional resting place on Country. Rooted in Page’s own Yugambeh Country, the story follows Wudjang and her younger companion spirit, Gurai, as she dances, teaches, and sings lessons of the past, warnings for the present, stories of the earth, and of songlines. Co-written by Page with playwright Alana Valentine, Wudjang: Not the Past builds on Bangarra’s unique dance style and storytelling to bring in the power of spoken word, the beauty and emotion of song, and the rawness of live music. This combination builds on the emotiveness and evocative choreography of the Bangarra dancers, as their bodies contort in pain from past traumas, flow through songlines and connections, and join together in traditional dance and ceremony.
At its core, Wudjang: Not the Past is about the handing down to new generations the knowledge, customs, connection to Country, sense of belonging, and also the rawness of trauma of their ancestors. In apt timing ahead of Invasion Day, this performance does not shy away from the atrocities and genocide committed by white settlers in Australia. From the destruction of the land as it became overrun with sheep, to the assaults on Indigenous peoples, particularly women. But among these harsh realities there is a sense of strength and of determination for the passing of culture and connection to Country to coming generations.
The soundscape by composer Steve Francis and music director Alan John drive the mood of the performance, providing space for the fantastic vocal performances, and using both recorded and live music to add layers to the dance and movement. For those looking for a neatly choreographed and contained contemporary dance show, Wudjang: Not the Past is not that. But it is so much more, and the movement and dance that is included is evocative, awe inspiring, and poetic all at once.
The set design by Jacob Nash and costumes by Jennifer Irwin helped to create the vignettes that kept the story alive, creating space and dynamism for the performers whilst capturing the rapidly fluctuating mood of the piece. Particularly notable were the use of texture and colour by Irwin and lighting designer Nick Schlieper. The palette evolves from the white and grey of bones, to the red and black of fire and fury, the greens and blues of Country, the muted tones of mourning, and finally to the wattle yellow of celebration and renewal.
With this performance, Bangarra has taken it to a new level. From the standing ovation Wudjang: Not the Past received tonight, it can only be expected that the company will continue forward on this upwards trajectory.