I was seated in the front row when I went to see Bennelong, the latest production from Bangarra Dance Theatre, so I could observe the dancers’ bodies and technique to my heart’s content. From the first step, the choreography was composed of long movement phrases. There were few static poses. The dancers did not reach a position so much as move through it in a ceaseless dynamic flow. A few times I tried counting as they danced to see if the steps were in the usual 8-count blocks, but I was never sure that they were. There was drama in some of the shapes they made, especially with the arms and hands, twisted and splayed like twigs or opened wide. Otherwise, what appeared in a phenomenological flux before me was ever-shifting movement, not defined steps.

And it was deep and low to ground, coming from pliable hips and thighs. The dancers would bend, fall, roll, reach, prowl, unfurl, sink to the floor and come up softly, then down again. In the group sequences, they were sub-divided into duos and trios each doing their own steps. The effect was a mass of movement with a dispersed focus. The eye could follow any constellation of dancers at any spot on the stage. I wondered how Stephen Page composed this effect in the studio, arranging multiple points of interest into a harmonious whole. It was impossible to tell if steps were repeated between the groups or if each one was doing separate choreography. These sequences were active and energised like a living Jackson Pollock.

Soft feet

I was especially taken by the dancers’ feet and their soft, controlled footwork. One movement that was often repeated was a sudden, swift drawing up of the foot, which was held flat and turned in. It recalled, for a fleet second, those old images of Aboriginal men standing on one leg with the other foot resting on the thigh. It’s a colonial recollection with a nasty aftertaste and it made a graceful action hint at something sinister within the story.

In classical ballet the foot being turned inwards at the ankle is called a ‘sickle’ and it’s considered a fault. Rather, the classical dancer aims to rotate the foot outwards  in a fish-shaped curve. There is a fetishisation of the extreme foot in ballet, and men, as much as women, now develop prominent arches to show off when they point. The Bangarra sickle is more natural to the body’s workings than the ballet fish, and there were no pointed toes all evening that I can recall. Stephen Page does not privilege any body part in his movement. His steps arise from the story-telling: dancers spin when they’re confused, or jump when they’re fighting or angry. There is skill, speed and strength on display but no virtuosity — no bravura leaps, turns or extensions. The movement style is anti-heroic, but the heroism of Bennelong is never in doubt.

Concentrated storytelling

Bennelong is told in a series of vignettes that embody elements of Bennelong’s fractured life along with scenes of a more abstract nature, such as a solo performed by Elma Kris entitled Rewind 1788: ‘consciously reflecting the spirit of Bennelong, the land and the people’ . The effect is a concentrated but impressionistic narrative, more poetry than biography.

Stephen Page says he ‘was born into a family of storytellers’ and clearly he has inherited a few theatrical genes in his ancestry as Bennelong makes great use of light, smoke, costume and props. His achievements as an artistic director are celebrated, but his talent as a choreographer does not receive as much attention. He studied dance at the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association. When he graduated in 1983, he danced with Sydney Dance Company until 1991 — during the Graeme Murphy era. There he developed his artistry in a contemporary dance style that has a direct lineage from classical ballet. He was apprenticed to Murphy, another choreographer with a flair for theatrics and arresting visual effects.

Page’s choreographic invention for Bennelong does not show the influence of any obvious contemporary style, although I noticed several dancers referenced Lester Horton technique in their bios in the program. Horton was an American dancer who studied the Iroquois and Red River Indians and the Penobscot and Ojibwa tribes in the 1920s. The technique he went on to develop through his many dance ventures emphasises a whole-body awareness with flexibility, strength and coordination  directed towards unrestricted freedom of expression. This describes Page’s dance aesthetic. He has created a style perfectly suited to the bodies of his dancers and the nature of his stories. Like Bangarra Dance Theatre, it is its own creation. It all starts in the studio, with the choreographer saying to the dancers ‘try this’ and beginning to take the idea out of his head and transplanting it on to someone’s body. The theatrics come later.

The pleasure of a short performance

One last point: an evening of dance often stretches over 2 intervals and presents the dilemma of eating dinner at 5.30pm or 11pm. Bennelong  took a short sixty minutes. In at 6.30pm, out at 7.30pm, ordering dinner and discussing the performance at 8pm. Sweet.