Directed and choreographed by Stephen Page. Written by Stephen Page and Alana Valentine. Composer Steve Francis. Set design by Jacob Nash. Costumes by Jennifer Irwin. Lighting by Nick Schlieper. Language consultant Donna Page. Bangarra Dance Theatre, Festival Theatre. Adelaide Festival Centre. Adelaide Festival. March 15-20. 2022
Reviewed by Peter Wilkins.
There is a sombre tone to Karl Telfer’s greeting to Country and the reading of his late mother’s poem calling the old spirits home. He echoes the theme of Bangarra’s new work, Wudjang: Not the Past for here in the spirits of his First Nation people the past is the present and the present is the past. Artistic director Stephen Page’s epic new work is powerful and authentic truth telling, visceral in its artistry, an inspiring fusion of music, song and dance and an anthem to survival and resilience.
On the Festival Theatre stage, Wudjang: Not the Past assumes the epic stature of opera and Greek tragedy. Steve Francis’s composition of Page and Valentine’s poetry is imbued with the spirit of resistance and resilience. It is the proud story of a defiant people, struggling against horrific crimes of rape, murder and dispossession. These are songs of resistance and of hope, striving for restoration and healing. With musical director Alan John, the band and the haunting melodies of the violin, Francis’s composition embraces First Nation tradition and contemporary compositions creating music that aptly underscores such a work of vast magnitude.
If the production’s music is the expression of the soul, Bangarra’s dancers are the magical storytellers of their art. Their athleticism, their fluidity, their emotion and their spirit combine in a bewitching display of storytelling through the art of dance. Wudjang: Not the Present is neither obscure nor abstract in its storytelling. Lyrics and dance present a narrative that is powerfully and clearly told, visually dynamic, aurally transformative and spiritually arousing. It is a salutary experience of ancient truths and contemporary shame. As rich and uplifting as it may be as a theatrical spectacle, it is essentially a lesson that we too must learn with Nananhg.
This is Stephen Page’s deeply personal story. It is the story of a proud Yugambeh man who lives with the white man in a land that still calls out for healing and reconciliation. It is the tale of invasion, of persecution and enslavement, of the Nerang massacre under Frederick Wheeler, of a stolen generation and the loss of language, culture and exploitation. It is also a story of hope and as the feathers fall from above onto the stage below and Nananhg and the cast celebrate Wudjang’s endurance with the final chorus of resolve;
While the land is here we are
While the land still breathes we are
While the rivers run we are
We will never leave.
( I would have liked surtitles to completely immerse me in the beauty and the power of the language).
If Wudjang: Not the Past is Stephen Page’s swansong as artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre before handing over to Frances Rings, then this is a song that hits the highest note. It is a gift not only to his clan, but to all First Nation people and the nation.
Photos by Daniel Boud