“I hope that the people who see this performance don’t think that this is just history.” First Nations Emerging Critic Carissa Lee reviews Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Dark Emu
“This is not a bleeding heart confection or adoration of the noble savage.”
Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu
I took my brother Zac, who was visiting from rural South Australia, to see Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Dark Emu. As we entered the foyer at the Arts Centre, he said: “This is a black show, and yet I feel like I’m being stared at.” There weren’t many people in the room who weren’t white, and it made for a weird vibe.
I understand that there are community nights for blackfellas, but why are so few at the opening nights of these kinds of shows? Are they not invited, or do mob feel like it’s best not to attend? To the patrons who stared at my brother, a man who is a member of the race of people you were here to watch: don’t think for a second that just because we appear on your stages for a night that it means you’re entitled to have an opinion of where we’re supposed to be at any given time. We’re not here to fit a context that makes you more comfortable. You’re walking on First Nations land, and you need to remember your place.
Despite the awkward encounters in the foyer, Zac really enjoyed the show. As an Indigenous man who doesn’t get much opportunity to connect with cultural content back home, the performance moved him in a way he did not expect.
Dark Emu is inspired by Bruce Pascoe’s award-winning book, which dispels the myth that Indigenous peoples in Australia were hunter-gatherer nomads, a notion Pascoe takes apart as a convenient colonial myth. Pascoe’s book is work of impeccable scholarship that draws on myriad sources to show evidence to show that Aboriginal people across the continent were using domesticated plants, sowing, harvesting, irrigating and storing for thousands of years before white settlers arrived, a knowledge that has been continously threatened since colonisation.
Before the show, Auntie Joy Murphy did a Welcome to Country. She mentioned that Bangarra’s artistic director Stephen Page had just suffered the loss of his mother. The gum leaves in Aunty Joy’s coolamon weren’t burning, but I could smell them from my seat four rows away. Although it’s important that organisations like the Arts Centre Melbourne and Malthouse Theatre do an acknowledgment of the traditional owners over the PA, my brother noticed that many people didn’t bother to stop talking. Another thing I’d never really noticed before.
Dark Emu is choreographed by Stephen Page, Daniel Riley, Yolande Brown and the dancers of Bangarra Dance Theatre. It makes for a wonderful collaboration: each dance is articulated in a different style, ranging from a “traditional” Indigenous feel to contemporary dance or even ballet, creating a contrast of staccato movement juxtaposed with water or fire-like flow.
The show begins with a neon blue white spiral, much like the waterhole/camp symbol that you often see in Central Desert paintings. This is set behind a scrim that makes the stage look like a cave that contains this luminous blue shape. The dancers gradually appear, moving like waves, and we hear traditional singing in language.
The first 10 minutes of the performance were a little slow: for me the symbolism of the movements, dancers, costumes and abstract shapes were at first vague, and I found myself disengaging. However, as narratives emerged from the dance, I felt more able to give myself to the story. The dancers pick their moments of unison, allowing for solos that focus on each dancer, each with their own respective choreography. But they move in chorus throughout the work, allowing each solo moment to be emphasised. I felt that this reminds the audience that as Indigenous people we move in our own ways, live in our own ways. We are unique, each of our people have their own stories, their own triumphs and scars, but we come together as one. Although we’re one race, don’t make the mistake of thinking we’re all the same.
The various sequences narrate different techniques of harvesting or agriculture, and the struggles of Aboriginal people to preserve their knowledge.The dance that I found most powerful was Trampled by Indifference, which features a text by Alana Valentine called Blowflies. We see bodies being trampled, flies sticking to skin, white men coming to massacre.
In another part featuring the male dancers, Rocks of Knowledge, the men, all topless, slowly manipulate large rocks, letting their body’s relationship to the rocks they carry be the decider of how they move with them. While the previous female-driven dance was nurturing and warm, this was sensual.
This was followed by a powerful hunting sequence called Whales of Fortune. I felt sad for the dancers portraying the swimming mammals, as the surrounding circle of hunters prodded them with sticks and captured them. In another scene, two men carry a smoking coolamon onto the stage, while the women sit on nest-like sticks fashioned into a kind of bench. More men enter and capture the women, pulling apart the construction on which they sit and pulling each woman away from her group. Eventually they use the disassembled bench to cage the women inside. One woman, dancer Elma Kris, remains with a weaving she holds close to her body. Kris’s solo, gently guarding this weaving, made me think of the cultures that we so desperately cling to against: vulnerable, like the tiny lone dancer on the stage.
But then the hunters become the hunted. In the following sequence, Smashed by Colonisation, a man comes in with rope and captures the group of hunters. In silhouette we see hands reaching for escape, writhing bodies struggling against their bonds. The captive group is eventually unraveled and lined up along the rope, an image redolent of slavery. However, trios and pairs of dancers break free to dance, to stretch, move, making beautiful images, and symbolizing the segue into the following sequence, Resilience of Culture. Here the scrim from the opening sequence lowers again, and the dancers re-emerge in movements that echo the beginning: flowing like water in the blue light. The dancers each move away, like a tide, until is one dancer is left. We hear ‘thank you, my country.’ And finally we see her vanish, wave-like, out of sight.
Steve Francis’s composition curates ambient sound – flickering fires, waves, flapping wings, rain – into his score. The music ranged from abstract and instrumental to contemporary with a thumping base. We often heard black voices singing in language, and it brought goosebumps every time. There were moments with dialogue, sometimes in language, at other times in English. The various parts of the score came together with the choreography into a beautiful unity.
Jennifer Irwin’s costumes range from minimal black to ghostly white to woven red, or a silky aqua to represent marine life. The white ochre that covered the dancers’ bodies was almost a character in itself, splling from the set props or symbolising gunshots. We sometimes see the ochre coming off the dancers as they move, creating a cloud that renders them ghostly, and yet somehow makes them more alive. Jacob Nash’s design was minimal, employing large props, such as a huge leaf that is tipped by one of the dancers to pour white ochre dust on them, or a termite nest that appears from the darkness with smoke pouring out of it.
Throughout the production there are moments of beauty that celebrate the advancement and independence of Aboriginal peoples, the knowledge that was achieved, preserved and protected pre-contact. But we’re also reminded of the recurring attempts by invaders to take from us our ways, our words, our children and our lives.
I hope that the people who see this performance don’t think that this is just history. Everything that’s represented on that stage – the love, the families, the need for community, and the constant attempts at our annihilation – is out there in our streets right now. And while it’s lovely to sit there in your seat, to listen, take it in, maybe even have a little bit of a cry about it, what happens when you get back out into the world? What are you going to do about it?
Dark Emu, inspired by Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe, featuring text by Alana Valentine. Choreographed by Stephen Page, Daniel Riley, Yolande Brown, and the dancers of the Bangarra Dance Theatre, set by Jacob Nash, lighting design by Sian James-Holland, costumes by Jennifer Irwin. Performed by Bangarra Dance Theatre at Arts Centre Melbourne. Until September 15. Bookings
Suitable for ages 12+
Content warning: contains strobe/bright lighting, theatrical smoke and haze and gunshots.