QPAC & Bangarra Dance Theatre
August 15–23 2014
Reviewed by Ruth Ridgway
“The more time I spent contemplating Patyegarang, her courageousness and generosity of spirit, the deeper the importance I felt for Bangarra to awaken her spirit at this time and share this distinctive story from her perspective as an Eora woman.”
In Bangarra Dance Theatre’s latest work, Patyegarang, choreographer and Artistic Director Stephen Page honours the Eora people of the Sydney area, and commemorates their experience of early contact with European settlers. Bangarra’s headquarters is on Eora land.
Patyegarang explores the story of the relationship between a young Eora woman of that name, and Lieutenant William Dawes, an English officer who arrived in Australia in 1788.
While the story and its context are presented in an impressionistic style in 14 short sections, the threads and themes are clear — a tribute to the significant contribution by dramaturg Alana Valentine, acknowledged by Stephen Page.
We see the special status that Patyegarang has among her people, the Eora women’s daily tasks of fishing and food gathering, the people’s use of boats, and the preparation for the hunt.
Patyegarang meets Dawes, who is trying to understand his unfamiliar surroundings, and she explains and names different elements, including constellations in the night sky. This is subtly done: Patyegarang focuses her attention and movement on the different elements and Dawes observes, follows and joins her.
In other sections of the work, we see the despairing Eora people in drab European clothing, suffering from illness, and men being shot by European soldiers. In one scene, Dawes wipes white ochre dust off a young man, and Patyegarang cleans black body paint off a young woman — both revealing the same colour skin underneath in a message affirming a common humanity.
The interactions between Patyegarang (Jasmin Sheppard) and Dawes (guest dancer Thomas Greenfield) are tender and full of goodwill, except at the end where they confront the fact that they belong to opposing worlds. They part with sadness, but the work finishes with an affirmation of the Eora people’s connection with the land, and a re-honouring of Patyegarang.
Sheppard is a gentle Patyegarang, while also conveying the character’s power and courage as a “chosen messenger” of her people. Her movements are rounded, and she skims her feet over the floor as she walks, as if feeling the earth. Greenfield, too, while a tall and commanding presence, has a gentle quality as well as great strength.
Waangenga Blanco and Elma Kris as Eora leaders or elders added another dimension of spiritual power and authority to the cast. Blanco, leading the men in dance, was very strong and intense, in perfect command of the grounded traditional movement, with body upright, knees bent and legs swivelling.
Kris’s trance-like entrance near the beginning and end of the work, bent over with a smoking wooden coolamon on her back, brings spiritual support and guidance. She leads the women as they gather around Patyegarang, carrying leafy branches and coolamons issuing resin-scented smoke.
Smoke, ochre, dust, and body paint are just some elements of the immersive sensory experience of this work. Composer David Page, and the designers — Jacob Nash (set), Jennifer Irwin (costumes) and Nick Schlieper (lighting) — have created another world.
The set recreates a towering sandstone cliff, with the lighting changing its colour and the depth of its shadows as it moves from the rose of dawn to daylight, and to night. In the depiction of their traditional lives, the women wear beautiful costumes: ruched and tucked earth-coloured dresses with string backs; skirts like woven string nets in various colours, inverted over the head to resemble woven fish traps; and pleated shimmery black and silver skirts and scarf tops in a night scene.
Singing, chanting, and instrumental music are mixed with bird calls and other sounds of the natural world in the musical soundtrack. We also hear Darug, the traditional language of the Eora people, as if spoken by Patyegarang. This is a poignant connection: as pointed out in the program notes, the rediscovered record of her language in Dawes’s notebooks was a gift of cultural knowledge back to her people 200 years later.
Stephen Page’s intention of honouring the Eora people is more than realised in this beautiful, absorbing and inspiring work that invokes the spirit of Patyegarang. What ultimately happened to her is unknown, but part of her story has been brought back to life.
“May the resonance of her potent story open our hearts and inspire our minds to imagine a collaborative, future Australia.”