Bangarra Dance Theatre

QPAC Playhouse

August 7 – 15 2015


Reviewed by Ruth Ridgway


I.B.I.S lore - Bangarra men ensemble - Photo by Edward Mulvihill



‘… it is our wish to leave you with a message of hope and joy.’

Deborah Brown and Waangenga Blanco, I.B.I.S.



‘We are not one thing, we are many. That’s our survival, our adaptation. We’re not afraid to evolve.’

Frances Rings, Sheoak



I.B.I.S. and Sheoak, the two works on Bangarra’s double bill lore, are very different. I.B.I.S., by dancers/choreographers Deborah Brown and Waangenga Blanco, is a lively, joyous celebration of Torres Strait Island culture; Sheoak, by Resident Choreographer Frances Rings, is an intense work about an endangered culture renewing its spirit and forging a new way ahead.


I.B.I.S. is named after the Islanders Board of Industry and Service, a small authority that runs local stores on islands in the Torres Strait. Set in a fictional store, I.B.I.S. is a tribute to the organisation’s success, and the sense of community on which this is based.


I.B.I.S lore - Deborah Brown & Waangenga Blanco - Photo by Jeff Tan


Brown and Blanco say in the program notes that they see the store’s patrons as modern hunters and gatherers. The action starts in the store as the day begins, shifts to scenes about turtle hunting and turtle eggs, and a dreamlike sequence where crayfish in the freezer come to life, and finishes as people gather in the shop and socialise before leaving at the end of the day.


Elma Kris is the store manager and a central figure in the community, at first seen sweeping the floor around the shelves of brightly coloured boxes and packets. Waangenga Blanco plays the guitar, and Kris sings You Are My Sunshine in Ka La Lagau Ya language.


In the shop scenes, all the dancers sing and create percussion accompaniment, using their bodies and items such as wire shopping baskets, sardine tins, and boxes. Their movement is springy, stepping with bent knees. The female dancers’ tropical-print cotton frocks add to the carefree ‘party’ atmosphere.


The joy is infectious, and I’m sure everyone in the audience was discreetly tapping or jigging along in their seat – it was too hard to resist. The concluding numbers in particular, when the dancers were singing, and the men danced for the women and the women for the men, and then in unison, were pure joy. The dancers all gave strong performances, with the energy of Brown and Blanco standing out.


I wondered if Sheoak, coming after the energy and joy of I.B.I.S. would seem an anticlimax, but I was very wrong. Taking a completely different turn, Sheoak is an intense and gripping journey from loss to renewal, with many beautiful and inspiring moments along the way.


Rings says in her program notes that the sheoak tree is a powerful symbol in itself, providing tools, medicine, food and shelter, and in her work also symbolises Indigenous culture. The design and choreography strongly reinforce this symbolic connection between culture and the tree throughout, with the dancers carrying and manipulating trimmed leafless branches several metres long. Visually, the branches create interesting patterns, and extend the effect of the dancers’ movement.


Sheoak lore - Bangarra ensemble - Photo by Jeff Tan


The opening story is one of loss, with the death of an ancient scar tree. The dancers are piled on top of each other in a column, slowly twisting and grappling to rise up in a shaft of light.


They wear black and white short unitards with markings like twigs or veins, and jerkin-like tops, slashed in strips and resembling bark or bones, or the skin of a lizard. The accompanying soundtrack includes rending booms and creaking noises, and birds screeching in alarm.


The tree’s Keeper (Elma Kris) mourns. In this pivotal role, Kris is a powerful presence moving through the different stages of the story, sorrowing, guiding, enduring and inspiring.


Hearteningly soon after the death of the tree comes the poignantly beautiful ‘Seed’, a scene of hope and new growth, with the women creeping in on the ground, wrapped in white gauzy skirts that glimmer in the dimness. Their arms and legs occasionally extend and waver, like new shoots growing from the seed.


The journey to renewal is not straight ahead, though. It lurches into violence and breakdown in the section ‘Swinging Trees’, with the men, their bodies smeared with black and red, fighting against swinging suspended branches, and moving as if drunk or drugged.


‘Synthetic Seed’, a haunting duo between Kris and Yolanda Lowatta, a small intense figure, seems to set out again towards hope and renewal. They dance with the branch that Kris carries and then transfers to Lowatta, who is laid down on the earth in darkness at the end.


Sheoak lore - Leonard Mickelo - Photo by Edward Mulvihill


Out of the darkness, a new spirit is born. Two almost invisible dancers carry in a filmy bundle of white cloth, lit from within, cradling and then unfolding it, so that it seems to move by itself.


Finally, comes a celebration of the hard-won renewal and the continuing journey of the spirit in a scene for the whole company, their faces and bodies daubed with white, and wearing filmy pale long skirts, wrapped with strands of twisted fabric, string and feathers. At the end, a pyramid of branches has been rebuilt around the Keeper.


This resolution was very moving and, coming after such an intense journey, brought the first-night audience to its feet.


Bangarra is a Wiradjuri word meaning ‘to make fire’, and that’s what the company does in lore, inspiring and illuminating in a revelatory performance.


The elements of dance, music (Steve Francis), design (Jacob Nash), lighting (Karen Norris), and costumes (Jennifer Irwin) all combine to provide a powerful sensory experience for the audience. Bangarra’s lore finishes August 15.


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