Stephen Page has put his own genius to one side in commissioning Frances Rings to produce Terrain for Bangarra Dance Theatre. True to the company’s name, this work weaves narrative and and physical expression into an impressionistic vision of the timeless power and enduring sanctity of Lake Eyre, better known to its traditional owners, the Arabuna, as Kati Thanda.
Terrain is a hymn to country, in which Rings indulges a long-held fascination that resides close to her heart. And what could be more astonishing, when one thinks about it, than a mythical inland sea, sought after by early explorers and which, it turned out, actually existed and has since time immemorial. Still pristine, thanks to remoteness, it’s a spiritual plain if you will, awash with meaning, symbolism, feeling and culture.
It may be the lowest point on the continent (and the Kati Thanda basin, believe it or not, covers a sixth of it), at around 15 metres below sea-level, but it’s comprised of some of the least exploited ecosystems on the planet; low point or not, Rings and co elevate it to one of the highest on the contemporary dance and theatre calendars for the year.
Of course, it’s not just Rings, but her collaborators, that achieve this; probably for most among them, the almost inestimably talented composer and sound designer, David Page. His contributions never fail to strike the ear as utterly fresh, vital and eminently listenable, in their own right. Here’s he’s turned landscape into soundscape, interpolating the electronic and traditional (including fragments of language) to form an homogenous whole.
Jacob’s Nash clean, elemental design ensures the dancers and the dance remain the most heroic and visible aspects of the piece, while his backdrops reflect indigenous attachment and the vast, awe-inspiring, resonating sense of place that Kati Thanda embodies.
Jennifer Irwin’s costumes complement the transporting palate of ochres and aquatic hues; they’re impeccably designed, so that even when they drape or drag, they never inhibit movement, but enhance the sense of it, while adding emblematic textural and sculptural notes and enabling the dancers to be perceived as mysterious things, forms and beings other than themselves.
Karen Norris has reined in any temptation to make statements with lighting design. She has sought to honour Nash’s pristine white palette, which bespeaks both purity and the forbidding, salt-encrusted hardness which so often characterises this inimitable place.
But front-and-centre, it’s Rings that’s turned her dancers into creatures and even the landscape itself. They shift, bend, buckle and morph like the country has over Aboriginal and geological time. Rings has a vested interest here: defending urban Aborigines who so often come under attack from their own (and, much more often, I expect, from outside the blackfella community) as being somehow traitorous insofar as selling out traditional values. Rings allusion here is that just as one can’t stop being, say, Jewish, one can’t break connection to country, no matter how physically divorced from that country. You stop being truly, madly, deeply, quintessentially Aboriginal when you stop breathing and only then. It’s an important, powerful, political statement, eloquently made, in this case through movement, rather than voice.
This seems to be her intent with the first ‘movement’ of Terrain, Red Brick: urban blackfellas are no less authentically black than those living remotely. It could be she’s also suggesting whitefellas can make a similar connection, if the desire is singer and strong enough. This brother and sisterhood-building notion is, clearly, both bold and appealing. And, from the very first, Rings and her dancers manage to meld the spiritual with the sensual. In sixty-five tight, eventful, immersive minutes (the passing of which we’re more-or-less blissfully unaware), she evokes the timelessness of Kati Thanda. Rebirth. Regeneration. The imperatives of fertility and reproductivity. The ancient becomes cutting-edge. It took a year to make her first full-length work for Bangarra and it’s entirely evident in the depth and intensity of every moment on stage.
Shields, the second movement, is sociopolitical, too, reflecting on the ongoing struggle for land rights that still pertains to disparate indigenous groups across the country. It’s both topical and timely with respect to the Arabuna, whose native title battle was won just as Terrain premiered in Melbourne earlier this year.
Just as people and country are inseparable, so, too, are the dancers, intertwined like the branches of a stately waddy tree. They climb upon each others backs, supporting each other; each having his, or her, chance to flower. It’s a vision of community and there cold hardly be amore auspicious year in which to celebrate its strengths: it’s fifty years since Aborigines were granted the right to vote; forty, since the establishment of the tent embassy; went, since native title.
While the eternity of spirit women biding their time is evoked in Spinifex, so too, in Salt, is the enormity of the landscape; by turns benign and pernicious, abundant and depriving, friend and foe. The Shadow Solo by Kaine Sultan-Babij is something to behold, though no moreso than all the other resplendent work, almost as breathtaking as the place it honours.
Scar charts the disruptive influence of man and stands as a warning to value what is and not what might be. It reminds us of the bone-shakingly restorative potency that comes of allowing our feet to sink into sand, surrendering ourselves to the greater force of nature. It chastens and instructs us to reconnect to the primal. “Landscape,” Rings rightly eulogises, “is at the very core of our existence and is a fundament of our connection to the natural world. That connection cleanses, awakens and renews. It gives us perspective. It reminds us of something beyond ourselves and frees us. When surrounded by nature we begin to understand our place: a very small part of a much bigger picture.”
Terrain is transformative, healing and will do you a power of good. Even if you didn’t know you needed it, you’ll realise you did need the renovation and rejuvenation it brings. It’s the very best kind of makeover: one for the spirit. At the very same time, it’s a sublime work of aesthetically orgasmic art. Just as past lives are indelibly etched into the very surface of and beneath Kati Thanda, so, too, does Terrain promise to make its mark on you. And I. That promise has been more than fulfilled, in my case.
Terrain, I further note, is all the more impressive and memorable for its lack of conventional spectacularity; or what passes for such, in the superficial universe of entertainment, these days.
The details: Terrain plays the Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House until August 18 — tickets on the venue website. The show will travel to Wollongong, Adelaide, Canberra and Brisbane through until October — more details on the company website.