Review: 65,000 Years of Human Movement at the Harris with Bangarra Dance Theatre Australia

Bangarra Dance Theatre in Nyapanyapa. Photos by Vishal Pandey.
For those who fought through the crowds from the Millenium Park tree lighting, an invigorating evening awaited at the Harris Theater this weekend: Bangarra Dance Theater Australia made an all too brief stop in Chicago on their world tour to present two signature works: Spirit and Nuapanyanyapa.  The 30 year old company fuses Aboriginal culture with contemporary dance in a powerful hybrid of meaning and motion, and they managed to transcend the boundaries of time, space and culture to make a magical evening.

The evening begins with a tribute to Chicago’s First People, honoring the fact that we were gathering and seated on lands of the Council of the Three Fires: the Odawa, Ojibwe and Potawatami.  The ensemble goes on to thank Chicago’s rich First Nations cultures and their elders for their generosity allowing them to perform on their lands.  The name Bangarra means the act of making a fire in the Wiradjuri language and the ensemble certainly ignited the Harris stage.

The first work, Spirit, a reconstituted work with sections drawn from other pieces dated 1994 to 2002, and has 5 sections of movement framed by opening and closing video content which serves to locate the work in a 65,000 year continuum of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture.  The first section is called Black and features six male dancers who enter with bush headdresses/props.  There is white ochre wiped across their foreheads to protect and maintain the male spirit.  The dance is at once primal and formal: a seamless blend of ancient ethnospecific dance and the clear composition and technique of contemporary dance.

Bangarra Dance Theatre in Spirit.
The ensemble here often works as a single entity. The company’s technique is striking: there is an organic sinewy use of torso and limbs with powerful leg work that acknowledges but is not beholden to gravity.   In the second section, we meet the women.  Their movements reference nurturing, feeding, gathering, with the same flowing technique that the men utilized.  In the section called Dingo, the men return for a ritualistic wooden knife ceremony that pumps up the rhythm, and has impressive choreographic architecture: it is satisfying the way Balanchine’s ensemble geometry delights.   The entire score by David Page and Steve Francis layers actual chanting, speaking, call and response and percussion with lush washes of sound and song that energizes both the dancer and the listener. Spirit concludes with an uplifting section called The Call that exhorts contemporary people to seek their connections to the land for strength.

The second piece, Nyapanyapa, is a kind of impressionistic story ballet inspired by the Yirrkala painting Buffalo Story Painting, where the painter Nyapanyapa Yunupingu depicts her near fatal encounter with a buffalo. The dance brings the painting beautifully to life.  Again the men’s dancing takes center stage with them partnering each other in novel ways, as visual elements creating an overall stage picture.  It is only towards the very end we see a duet with a man and a woman and it is a formal construct instead of a romantic encounter.  Jacob Nash’s set calls up the actual art work, and there is a gorgeous use of smoke sticks in the highly ritualistic ceremonial conclusion.

This is a company to see again: the wondrous athleticism of the dancers, the gorgeous and masterful choreography, the connection to a culture we do not often see, all make this a truly noteworthy company not to be missed if they pass this way again.

Bangarra ran at the Harris Theater, 205 East Randolph Street, Chicago on November 22 and 23rd, 2019. For more information go to Dance, Music, Performing Arts in Chicago | Harris Theater Millennium Park | Harris Theater Millennium Park

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Angela Allyn

Angela Allyn is a multidisciplinary artist whose practice includes ensemble building, community based arts and experience design. She writes about arts and culture for numerous publications and serves as Community Arts Coordinator at the City of Evanston.


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