Bangarra: Where Tradition Meets Contemporary

 Henry Jeong


Bangarra Dance Theatre is neither Canadian nor famous in Canada. It performed inTorontoonly once, and that was when all of we NT students were still tiny babies or toddlers. But it’s  more than that: it’s about the dance of stories, where traditions meet contemporary; the audience meets the stories and different societies.

Bangarra Dance theatre is Australia’s national premier indigenous dance company. It was formed in 1989 at Sydney as a dance company that not only embraces and respects the indigenous Australians and Torres Strait Islanders’ history and culture, but also provides opportunities for them to explore, express and present their identity across Australia and the world. Its start was slow, but in 1991, Stephen Page was appointed as the artistic director of the theatre. Under the direction of Page, Bangarra emerged not only as Australia’s major organisation for Indigenous performing arts, but also Australia’s cultural ambassador in major events. From 1992, when it débuted its first full-length production, Praying Mantis Dreaming, to 2011, it has performed 20 full-length pieces which were successful and regularly sold-out. Their 16 city sell-out tour of the United States established the Sydney-based dance theatre as a global phenomenon that continues to perform internationally in Europe, North America and East Asia. However, it only performed twice in Canada, in 1999 at Toronto with their production with Australian Ballet Rites, and Awakenings, which performed inOttawa at 2008.

Each year, Bangarra performs for approximately 50,000 people aroundAustraliaand the world. They perform in major cities, regional communities, major arts festivals and special events such as the Closing Ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics and the World Economic Forum inDavos,Switzerland. However, Bangarra keeps a strong connection with the indigenous people and communities that remain as their inspiration through their regular performances, workshops and artist-in-residence and traineeship program.

Bangarra’s dance productions are very innovative, artistically ingenious and unique, not only representing the indigenous culture for more than 40,000 years, in integration of traditional and contemporary dancing, but also powering its excellence in its components. It unifies the stories of the past and future, producing a powerful new language. Its background stories are based from the ancient rituals, stories of their creations and heritages that are passed from generation to generation, along with the historic and social issues that Aboriginal Australians have been facing since the colonial era. It spans across the many historic events, which are similar to many of those that happened toCanada’s First Nations and Inuit.

The dances are very well harmonised between lightings, background music, staging, movements and images it creates inside the audience’s minds, allowing them to be impressed with the electrifying dance it provides. From background music derived from the sounds of nature and musical instruments from the sounds of the birds chirping, to classical instruments and synthesiser, it well represents the sounds that are not only around us, but also exist as important parts of our lives. The staging is simply beautiful, expressing the concept of different, unique visions of natural landscapes in different parts of Australia to alienist, eerie scenes of people, poisoned by contaminated landscape due to series of atomic explosions that were conducted by the British Government in 1950s. The movements of people meanwhile aren’t as elegant as ballet or jazz – they express the energetic spirit, strength and struggles of life, the distinctive sides that are found within the nature and human settlements. One thing also to be appreciated is that the dancers and the staff are neither over fantasizing nor overly sensual, which is prevalent with many dance theatres and generally most pop musicians’ performances. The company has a very subtle way of honouring the stories that are sacred among indigenous peoples and the issues that they’re facing.

It became one of Australia’s premier dance theatres, in a class of their own. Their spectacular performances, when visitingAustralia, are one of the major attractions in performing arts. It shows the new visions of sustainable, creative dance theatre with powerful staging and storytelling. If you visitAustralia, watch their performances. You’ll never regret it.

Bangarra’s official website: