Thursday, March 17, 2022




 Wudjang:  Not the Past.

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. 

Page and writer/dramaturg Alana Valentine have created a narrative arc, embracing traditional stories with a contemporary scenario. As a prologue, gentle bush sounds of birds and running water fade as flashes of light dart through the auditorium and the ominous rumble erupts in a violent explosion and blackout. The explosion tears the heart out of Country to construct the white man’s dam. It augurs the brutal rape of the land of spirits and ancient culture.  The curtain rises on the vast clawed wheel of a digger, the symbol of destruction.  On a raised platform evocatively lit by Nick Schlieper’s lighting design sits Yugambeh man, Bilin (Kirk Page). In Mununjali language he sings the song of The Metal Mouth, a lament for the destruction of his land. With his niece, Nananhg (Jess Hitchcock) he slowly uncovers the ancestral bones of Wudjang, meaning mother, and mesmerizingly danced by Elma Kris, and Gurai meaning wonder (Lilian Banks). Wudjang is released from the earth and so begins the lesson that Nananhg can learn. In eight scenes, in which the soaring spirit of song, music and poetry and dance combine  Nananhg is guided by Maren, a representation of the ancestral maternal line, and performed with enormous stage presence and powerful voice by Elaine Crombie. Nananhg learns of her past traditions and relationship with Country. She witnesses again the cruel invasion of colonialism, its devastating oppression and rape and massacre of her people. She struggles to bestride two cultures as a woman in the modern age, seeking an understanding of Wudjang until she too can know her story and sing her ancient tongue. In a final moving act, Wudjang is returned to Country and spirit, endurance and resilience have triumphed. The figure of the white man’s wrongs, Duggai (Justin Smith) Judas like repents of the atrocities of the past, laying open a possible path to reconciliation.

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).


Wudjang: Not the Past is more than a story, told in dance, music and song. It reaches out beyond place and time to teach, to learn and to understand. Bangarra Dance Theatre has created a work that will stand forever as an anthem to the human spirit. It is an ode to collaboration and cooperation. It is the voice of First Nations culture and the hope for the future. Wudjang: Not The Past is a theatrical triumph and a spiritual awakening.

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