REVIEW: Terrain | Drama Theatre, Sydney
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.
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