Friday, July 10, 2015


LORE: I.B.I.S by Deborah Brown and Waangenga Blanco / SHEOAK by Frances Rings.  Bangarra Dance Theatre at Canberra Theatre Centre, July 9-11, 2015.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
July 9

After an opening season at Sydney Opera House, extended by public demand, Lore received rapturous applause for both dance works, each treating traditional lore underpinning modern life from different perspectives – geographical and emotional.

I.B.I.S is set in a fictional Island Board of Industry and Services supermarket, tiny by city expectations, on Mer, one of the smallest of the eastern Torres Strait islands.  Deborah Brown and Waangenga Blanco are descendants of the Meriam people, and their work entails Meriam Mer, Ka La Lagau Ya and Kir Kir Kaber dance styles and languages, spoken and sung.

I think I.B.I.S. must be the happiest and most triumphant dance story I can remember seeing on any stage, beginning in the morning (Debe Idim – Good Morning) with Elma Kris singing Ni Ngoe Dhe Goiga (You are my Sunshine) and concluding (Debe Ki – Good Night) with a magnificent full ensemble dance in traditional ceremonial costume and powerful singing in harmonies revealing the cultural connections of these islands with Polynesia, as well as with Papua and Australia.

Joy and a sense of wonderment accompanied us to Interval.  What success for Bangarra, whose dancers originate from such a multicultural mix, descended from Indigenous nations from all over Australia!

List the names and places in appreciation:

Nunukul, Munaldjali (Yugambeh) – artistic director Stephen Page, SE Queensland;
Kokatha / Germany – choreographer Frances Rings, Adelaide S.Australia;
Wakaid Clan, Badu (Meriam) / Scottish – choreographer Deborah Brown, Torres Strait;
Mer and Pajinka Wik – Waangenga Blanco, Cape York;
and dancers Elma Kris (Waiben, Thursday Island – Torres Strait);
Yolande Brown (Bidjara, Kunja nation – Central Queensland);
Tara Gower (Yawuru / Aboriginal, Filipino, Irish and Spanish – Broome, Western Australia);
Jasmin Sheppard (Tagalaka and Kurtijar / Irish, Chinese and Russian Jewish – Normanton, Gulf of Carpentaria);
Tara Robertson (Munaldjali – Logan River, Queensland);
Kaine Sultan-Babij (Arrente, Harts Range – Central Australia);
Luke Currie-Richardson (Kuku Yalanji, Djabugay, Munaldjali and Meriam – SE Queensland and Torres Strait);
Nicola Sabatino (Kaurareg and Meriam – Weipa, Cape York);
Beau Dean Riley Smith (Wiradjuri – Dubbo, Central New South Wales);
Rikki Mason (Kullili – Inverell, western NSW);
Yolanda Lowatta (Yam Island / Papua and Fiji);
Rika Hamaguchi (Yawrur, Bunaba, Bardi – Broome, WA);
Kyle Shilling (Widjubal, Bundjalung – Tweed Heads, north-east NSW);

then you understand the wonderment as Bangarra under Stephen Page’s direction, with his brother David Page (Head of Music), Steve Francis (Composer), Jacob Nash (Head Designer, Murri man from Brisbane), Jennifer Irwin (Costume Designer), Karen Norris (Lighting Designer) and Emily Amisano (Rehearsal Director) is able to bring together people of such a variety of backgrounds to perform a work so true to the culture of one small island off the far northern tip of Australia.

But that was just at Interval.  Then they take us to the dry inland of Australia, where Frances Rings’ story is about the sheoak tree:

Biological Name: Casuarina cristata
Common Name: Belah
Family: Casuarinaceae
Origin: Inland Australia
Exposure: Full Sun
Irrigation: Drought tolerant once established
Frost: Frost Tolerant 25F-18F (-8C)
Soil: Well-drained, alkaline, light to heavy
Flower Color: Red
Flower Time: Summer
Height: Variable 20-45'
Width: Variable

On stage we see only the bare timbers – no pine-type needle leaves, no seed cones for the black cockatoos, no red flowers.  This is not a story of joyous celebration, but of hope for the future despite the forces which have tried to destroy an ancient culture.  There are three parts, centred around the Keeper, danced by Elma Kris (from that place of water and sunshine, Thursday Island!) who began dancing with Bangarra in 1997, and won a Deadly Award for Dancer of the Year in 2007: 

PLACE: The land of the old growth scar trees has fallen.  Its keeper mourns its loss.  The people must now adapt to a new way of life.

BODY: The seeds begin searching for new grounds.  A new generation faces the challenges of community life.  Restrictions to cultural practices create a cycle of dysfunction.

SPIRIT: The birth of a spirit as it embarks on its journey.  Its arrival brings hope for change and renewal.

To watch this work was not about toe-tapping to the rhythmic life of the islands in the sun.  Rings demands attention to the significance of the imagery.  She takes us to a dark place where the men almost literally fall apart as we watch, helpless to know what to do.  It is the woman, the keeper, who maintains the faith, engenders the spirit (Nicola Sabatino and Tara Robertson), and finally brings the community together in calling the ancestors.

In both works the people of today need to remember and learn from the past – this is the tradition, the Lore.  Though in Sheoak there is recognition of past failure, there is hope; from I.B.I.S. we see the success of hope – the joy of community achievement.

And Bangarra Dance Theatre itself shows how it can be done, for the joy and benefit of all of us.  The dancing, the sound, lighting and exciting costuming bring to life all our hopes and faith in the Spirit of Art.