Native tales from Down Under

Oct 30, 2018, 08:04 IST | Snigdha Hasan

Australia's well-known Bangarra Dance Theatre, which celebrates Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, is on its way to Mumbai, with a curated collection of dance stories

Native tales from Down Under
(Right and bottom, left) Bangarra’s Tara Gower, Jasmin Sheppard and Yolanda Lowatta at their Spirit 2018 performance in Delhi

Storytelling among indigenous communities, interspersed with song, music and dance, is more than just a performing art form. A critical facet of their oral history tradition, it serves as a conduit through which ancestral cultural systems, values and identity are passed down the generations.

For 29 years, Bangarra Dance Theatre, an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisation and one of Australia's leading performing arts companies, has been sharing stories from the indigenous peoples of the country. Gathered from the elders of these communities, whose culture dates back to 65,000 years, the stories are showcased through powerful contemporary movements and intriguing soundscape. Each dancer of the company has an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander background, the latter deriving their name from the islands that are a part of Queensland in northern Australia. "Bangarra", which means to make fire, is a Wiradjuri word, a dialect spoken by an Aboriginal group.

Bangarra's Daniel Riley, Spirit 2018

Twenty years after its first visit to India, the company is on a tour of the country, having performed in Delhi and Bengaluru. This Thursday, it arrives in Mumbai, with the production, Spirit 2018. The event is a part of Australia Fest, a six-month-long festival of Australian culture, creativity and innovation in India.

"Spirit 2018 is a powerful collection of dance stories by Bangarra's artistic director and choreographer Stephen Page [who has led the company since 1991], drawn from the company's history. It is a beautiful combination of Aboriginal works that share stories and songlines from all over Australia," informs the company's executive director Philippe Magid. The programme for India ranges from political and social works to creation stories.

Since the genesis of each production lies in sourcing stories from the indigenous peoples, Magid tells us that although it takes up to 12 weeks to create a dance work, the community engagement process can take up to two years. "We work with cultural leaders, songmen [special performers who compose songs to describe day-to-day events] and owners of the traditional dances to create our repertoire," he says. They then brainstorm ideas during workshops with their creative team and dancers to develop the final work.

Bangarra’s Daniel Riley, Spirit 2018
Bangarra's Daniel Riley, Spirit 2018

The company lays great emphasis on the relationship between the indigenous and other residents of Australia, something that it aims to strengthen by facilitating cultural exchange. "After it is performed across Australia and overseas, our work is taken back to the community that inspired it," says Magid. Many of their productions have premiered at Sydney Opera House.

Like Australia, India is made up of myriad indigenous communities herself, many of which now face an existential challenge; the lack of understanding of their reality by "mainstream" India being one of the root causes. As part of a knowledge exchange initiative, the company engaged with some of these communities during this visit. "It was incredibly fulfilling to be able to not only impart our knowledge but also holistically understand [their] situation, and the way they preserve and nurture their culture," says Magid. "From the Chhau dancers in Purulia, the Mizo people of Aizawl and the Baiga in Bhopal, each community had its uniqueness. It was one of the best cultural exchanges the company has ever done."

On: November 1, 7.30 pm
At: Jamshed Bhabha Theatre, NCPA.
Call: 22824567
Entry: Rs 500 onwards

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