Aboriginal culture where it should be: centre stage

retrospective 2021. Photo: Jacquie Manning/supplied.

Review: Spirit: a retrospective 2021 at the Sydney Festival, Barangaroo Reserve, Friday, 22 January. By Gary Nunn, editor-at-large.

From the moment a dramatic dusting of ochre explodes from the slap of skin, evaporating into the moonlight like paradoxical snowflakes in desert heat, the audience knows they’re watching something unique with this Bangarra Dance Theatre production, part of the Sydney Festival.

From that first explosion, a combination of traditional Aboriginal clapsticks and a modern bass beat keeps the energy ebbing and flowing through 70 minutes of kinesthetic storytelling that infuses ancient and modern with an easy flair. 

This troupe of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander dancers has been in hibernation for ten months, and their explosion onto this giant, al fresco stage shows just how much they’ve been itching to get back out and doing what they clearly love. 

A village elder starts and finishes the show, which comprises a series of dance vignettes, each with different narratives. 

In the opening scenes, an ingenue is taught the basics by the elder, before the broader troupe show her their ways. Watching her slowly pick up the customs is beguiling, and before long she has thrown herself into their movements with verve. It’s an elegant way of showing the importance of storytelling and knowledge handed down from generation to generation through the mimicry of ancient rituals.

A scene from Spirit: a retrospective 2021. Photo: Jacquie Manning/supplied.

In subsequent scenes, men and women are separated and given their own gender specific stories to tell through dance, before the troupe is united and unisex again. 

The moments an individual performer is handed the stage are engrossing, but the most transfixing moments come when the troupe operates as a whole, syncronised yet also individual. 

Choreography by Stephen Page and Bernadette Walong-Sene is both graceful and earthy; the shapes made by the dancers blend into the land and the land blends into them until they are one and the same, a physical manifestation of country.

Somehow, without words, the dignity and resourcefulness of the world’s oldest living culture is conjured with nods to both pain and healing. Endurance is the thread that weaves each narrative into the next. The clapsticks keep on clapping; a consistent applause of defiant and dogged continuation. 

The stage itself is a sight to behold, a vast vessel for this performance under the stars. Bats and birds fly above whilst boats and trains go by in Barangaroo’s background: all Australian city life is here tonight.

‘The stage itself is a sight to behold,’ writes Gary Nunn. Photo: Jacquie Manning/supplied.

Coming, as it does, days after US youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman dazzled at Joe Biden’s inauguration “with every breath from my bronze-pounded chest,” this here feels like our own national stage, putting Australia’s black history front and centre; also stirring patriotism for the right reasons. 

Coming, as it does, days before a controversial national day commemorating invasion, this here, under Sydney’s stars, feels like an important celebration of Australia’s true pride, putting 65,000 years of culture where it belongs – centre stage of our city’s biggest arts festival. 

Spirit: a retrospective 2021 runs 8:30pm daily Wednesday, 20 January to Sunday, 24 January at the headland, Barangaroo Reserve, Sydney. Tickets ($25 plus booking fee) available at www.sydneyfestival.org.au/events/spirit.

Gary Nunn is editor-at-large of the Sydney Sentinel. Twitter: @garynunn1.