Bangarra Dance Theatre: Spirit is a mesmerizing fusion of ancestral and futuristic

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Bangarra Dance Theatre; photo by Zan Wimberley

Bangarra Dance Theatre has come to Toronto and gone, but is most definitely not forgotten. The acclaimed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance company from Australia recently performed Spirit, a curation of the company’s best repertoire drawn from its 30-year history. TO Live presented the Toronto show in partnership with Canadian Stage, in an all-too brief 3-performance run at Toronto’s Bluma Appel Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts on November 8 and 9, as part of Bangarra’s second visit to Canada and first major national tour of Canada and the US.

Spirit is a collection of dance stories by Stephen Page, the company’s Artistic Director since 1991. Set to a haunting and at times heartrending soundscape composed by David Page and Steve Francis, Spirit inspires audiences to consider and reflect on elemental stories from across Australia gathered from community Elders. In his program notes, Stephen Page notes that “in Spirit, we share the stories of our black experience uncensored, raw and unapologetic; stories that powerfully communicate the complexities, diversity and sophistication of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, culture and philosophy.” The 80-minute program is performed by a 17-member company of highly-trained dancers from across Australia who share Aboriginal and/ or Torres Strait Islander ancestry. Spirit combines cultural movements rooted in 65,000 years of Aboriginal and Torres Island culture with contemporary dance. 

Bangarra, a Wiradjuri word meaning “to make fire”, combines storytelling, dance, theatre and music, and takes inspiration from birds, plants, and ancestral medicine to create an experience that is at once ethereal and elemental, ancestral and futuristic. The program celebrates and meditates on the ongoing connection of First Nations Peoples to the land through surprising  movements sourced from natural motions like that of the brolga bird, and natural props like branches and bushes that the dancers bring onto the stage to dance with. The costumes and use of paints and powder are necessary and striking, and the program is gripping from start to finish. Perhaps my only criticism is that I did not want it to end. I wish it had at least played a few more performances in Toronto so that I could have seen it again!

This brief background, though factually accurate, cannot manage to convey the spirited beauty, sinewy angularity and ethereal transcendence of this dance program that weaves past and future into a seamless tapestry. Circumstances (mostly traffic) did me a favour the night I saw the show. I reached the theatre just two minutes before the curtain, so I had no time to read the descriptions of the dances in the playbill. Because of this, I was able to experience the program as a whole, with a resulting effect that was both visceral and soul-stirring. For this reason, I recommend this tactic of eschewing the programme portion of the playbill. Read it afterwards – the impact will be greatly heightened, and you will be twice as motivated to understand what the programme tells you.

It is no exaggeration to say that this show affected me more deeply than any show in a very long time. Audiences in Ottawa and Chicago will also be able to experience Stephen Page’s Nyapanyapa, inspired by the life story of Yirrkala artist Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, and where senior dancer Elma Kris will perform in the title role for which she received a Helpmann Award nomination for Best Female Dancer in 2016. If you get the chance to see Spirit during this tour (or to see anything else by Bangarra Dance Theatre), drop everything and go. And take the children.

 I suspect that Bangarra will leave you wanting more, as it did me.

Bangarra Dance Theatre; photo by Zan Wimberley

News You Can Use  

 What: Spirit by Bangarra Dance Theatre | Choreography by Stephen Page and Bernadette Walong-Sene | Traditional Choreography and Music by Djakapurra Munyarryun | Music Composed by David Page and Steve Francis |Costumes Design by Jennifer Irwin |Lighting Design by Nick Schlieper, Karen Norris, Joseph Mercurio, Matt Cox

Danced by Elma Kris, Tara Gower, Beau Dean Riley Smith, Nicola Sabatino, Rikki Mason, Rika Hamaguchi, Tyrel Dulvarie, Glory Tuohy-Daniell, Baden Hitchcock, Ryan Pearson, Lillian Banks, Bradley Smith, Courtney Radford, Jye Uren, Kassidy Waters, Kallum Goolagong, Gusta Mara

Who: Audiences of all ages

When and Where

  • November 8 – 9: Bluma Appel Theatre, St Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front St East, Toronto, Canada
  • November 15 – 16: National Arts Centre, Southam Hall, 1 Elgin Street, Ottawa, Canada
  • November 22 – 23: Harris Theater for Music and Dance, Millennium Park, 205 East Randolph Drive, Chicago, USA

Info and Tickets: 

© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2019

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