Review By Lisa Lanzi
Opening night in Adelaide was quite the return for Frances Rings, artistic director of Bangarra following Stephen Page’s epic thirty-three year tenure in the role. A descendant of the Wirangu and Mirning Tribes from the West Coast of South Australia, Rings has chosen inspiration for Yuldea from a South Australian story, or more correctly, Anangu (people of the Western Desert) generational experiences. Joining Rings onstage for an introduction, Maureen “Mima” Smart (an Anangu Elder from Yalata) spoke from notes of her personal reflections on the Maralinga atomic testing debacle and the forced displacement then ongoing injury to her people. Ms Smart’s document can be viewed in the program notes.
An element I have always appreciated in Contemporary dance is a certain diversity of dancing human bodies on stage. Many extraordinary technicians and dance artists who don’t ‘fit’ a more traditional image of a dancer may find a home for their passion within a Contemporary company. Another wonderful thing about Contemporary technique is the genre’s propensity to use performers’ bodies as a whole to convey story and sentiment and abandon the ‘upright-ness’ of classical ballet. Bangarra boasts truly exceptional trained dancers who also convey their individuality within the ensemble which is riveting for an audience as well as adding poignancy to story.
Presented in four acts, Supernova, Kapi (water), Empire, and Ooldea Spirit, Yuldea is a vast undertaking. Within each act exist various beings (birds, dingoes, and spirits) or more human protagonists. The choreographic language is broad using contemporary technique layered with a sense of indigenous movement. Technical and beautiful leg extensions abut more primal bent knee/flexed foot positions and sinuous arm and upper body gestures sit beside more jagged, rhythmic movement. Athletic, impressive partner work and acrobatic floor combinations also display the company members’ prodigious skills.
Although the sense of each act or indeed the whole narrative, encompassing the building of the Trans-Australian Railway in the early 1900s and the 1956 atomic testing at Maralinga, is not entirely clear from the choreography, there is still a sense of wonder, dignity, or desperation, and more conveyed; it is best to read the program notes prior to viewing. The strength of the production is in the elegant combination of design, dance, music, and lighting plus of course the skill and artistry of the dancers. The stage setting by Elizabeth Gadsby is awe-inspiring. Defining the performance area is a high and wide arc of rigging upon which is hung a ‘curtain’ of over 9kms of charcoal ombre-painted rope strands amongst which performers move, enter, and exit. Suspended above the space is a horizontal, gently-curved white, glowing artefact resembling a wrapped stick, or bone, or perhaps a constellation. By the final moments of the work, this sculpture becomes an upright arch, each end touching the floor and recalling the arched stick-like structures manipulated by the dancers earlier in the tale.
The detailed costuming is artistic, creative, and captivating. Jennifer Irwin has worked with Bangarra for over 30 years and clothes the dancers to depict the many characters and elements presented in Yuldea. Superb lighting design from Karen Norris, another established Bangarra collaborator, is beautifully atmospheric and speaks to the interconnectedness of sky, land, and culture. An important feature of Yuldea is the music and sound score. Songs from award-winning electronic duo Electric Fields (Zaachariaha Fielding and Michael Ross) pepper the work but it is Leon Rodgers’ complex and thoughtful full-length score that unites the whole. Rodgers accompanied the dancers and creatives to the Western Desert lands for research and connection purposes and some parts of their field recordings feature. There are also snippets of extant voice samples taken from the film Bitter Springs, hymns and other text sung or spoken in language.
As their first full-length work since taking the lead at Bangarra, Rings has set the bar high with Yuldea. I look forward to the next chapter of this treasured Company with interest.
Image Credit: Daniel Boud