It’s no coincidence the word “family” comes up time and again when speaking with various Bangarra Dance Theatre dancers. The Bangarra family is particularly tight-knit, the dancers brought together by their shared Indigenous culture and heritage.
This family connection has at least brought a little relief to the gaping wound that opened following the sudden death in April of founding Bangarra member and Helpmann Award–winning composer and actor David Page, brother of artistic director Stephen.
If there is one saving grace to Bangarra’s grief, it’s that healing can be found through song and dance. You can be sure every member of this clan will be pouring their heart and soul into doing just that.
“We’ve found strength together; we’ve been keeping an eye out for one another,” says dancer and choreographer Jasmin Sheppard. A senior member of Bangarra, Sheppard was working with David on the score for her debut work, Macq, when he passed away, and says it was a great honour to have collaborated with him so closely.
“I feel so, so lucky. David always pushed himself to go further with creativity. He was so invested in this story and I think that really spurred him on to challenge himself. We spent hours in his studio, discussing different emotions he thought he could bring out through the music,” Sheppard says.
Macq is part of three new pieces that form OUR land people stories. A confronting but compelling work, it exposes a sordid chapter in Australian history that is often glossed over, that of the Appin massacre of 14 Indigenous Australians in 1816 as sanctioned by Lachlan Macquarie.
Sheppard was driven to create the work after discovering the truth about the conflicted former governor of NSW, who was a friend to Indigenous Australians yet also had them killed.
“He’s held in such high esteem and I thought there was something really wrong about there being one side of the story that no one’s taught,” she says.
But rather than being a story of lasting condemnation, Sheppard has pitched Macq as a celebration of resilience and survival.
“It amazes me that after everything that happened, the D’harawal people went from 30,000 people before colonisation to 130 people after the massacres, and smallpox and other diseases inflicted on them. I thought how incredible it was that after 200 years they’ve gone from 30,000 to 130, and still exist.”
Macq forms a companion piece to Nyapanyapa, an homage from Stephen Page to Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, the internationally acclaimed visual artist from north-east Arnhem Land.
Created in Stephen’s 25th year as artistic director, Nyapanyapa was inspired by the artist’s series of paintings of dancing girls, along with a painting depicting a horrific childhood incident she endured when gored by a wild buffalo, which won the 2008 Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award.
The final piece is another new work, Miyagan, a co-production from company dancers Daniel Riley and Beau Dean Riley Smith to a score by ARIA award-winning composer Paul Mac. Here, family takes on further significance, as the boys discovered they were related when they began dancing together.
“I knew before I auditioned but I didn’t want to say anything; I wanted to get into the company on my own. Then when I got in I said to Dan, ‘Auntie Di says hello and told me to give you something, and by the way we’re related!’ I just sprung it on him,” chuckles Riley Smith. “It didn’t take long for a bond to form.”
Miyagan further explores family, in this case the tapestry of relationships that makes up the kinship system of the Rileys’ Wiradjuri people. The largest Indigenous nation on the east coast, the Wiradjuri nation stretches from the Lachlan to the Macquarie and on to the Murrumbidgee rivers (“Lachlan Macquarie named all sorts of things after himself, he was such a megalomaniac,” says Riley).
When researching their work, Riley Smith took Riley back to his home country of Dubbo, where they listened to stories and learnt more about the intricate kinship system.
“As an urban Aboriginal fella I always grew up knowing I was Wiradjuri and being very proud of that; but when it came to culture I was very ignorant, because of living in today’s society,” Riley Smith says. “Miyagan is also about re-educating myself and others about what that system is.”
For Riley, discovering more about his past and his family was particularly rewarding, as he only learnt of his Indigenous background when he was nine or 10. He remembers people staring at his fair skin and hair when he began connecting with his Indigenous background.
“At that early age I didn’t really understand it. But as I’ve gotten older it’s how I represent myself, how I’ve chosen people to connect to me is through my Indigenous heritage and lineage,” says Riley, whose debut choreographic work for Bangarra, Riley, was the story of his late cousin, acclaimed photographer Michael Riley.
“There’s something about Miyagan that’s been an amazing experience. Through Beau opening the door to wanting to do this kinship work, and allowing me to come on board and work collaboratively, he’s allowed me to connect with family.”
The national tour of OUR land people stories is dedicated to David Page.
OUR land people story runs at the Sydney Opera House from June 17 to July 9. Opening night is June 16.