I didn't have a chance to glance at the program before the theater lights went dark. No idea what to expect. I had never seen traditional Indigenous Australian dance, which is the root and inspiration of the contemporary works choreographed and performed by Bangarra Dance Theatre. What I did know was that the title of the night was Belong, and the two pieces I was about to view were titled About and ID.
About opened with a single woman dressed in white and a fine white mist creeping out from the right side of the stage. As the mist snaked and curled its way ever closer, she shrank from it and slowly, deliberately backed off the stage to the left. Then, a highly coordinated mass of dancers congregated in the mist under a backdrop that resembled a view of distant mountaintops. They began a sequence that had an uncanny resemblance to the opening scene of Ailey's Revelations. Arms were raised like flying birds above the dancers' heads and they moved as one, costumed in earth tones. The dancers made their graceful and powerful way through several scenes that seemed to represent a number of different natural places and processes-- desert, sea, and thunderstorm. A voice spoke throughout, describing experiences in the land, and drum beats filled in the silences. The woman in white reappeared throughout, sometimes joining in the dancing and other times standing back as if observing. Knowing that the theme of the night was Belong, I wondered whether the mist represented tradition and the woman in white was attempting to determine her relationship to and place within her cultural heritage.
At one point, a male dancer came out with chalk all over his body and hair. It came off of him in clouds when he moved and danced, mimicking the shape and direction of his movements. So cool! The mist was on and around him, as if he and the mist were one.
When I read the program during the intermission, I learned that the piece "explores the mood of the winds as they move across the land, sea, and sky signifying key moments in time. It reflects the strong links between communities and their natural environment." The woman in white was listed as "Storyteller," so perhaps she wasn't backing away from the mist so much as summoning and creating it. The spoken words must have been her own. Her involvement in the dancing from time to time took on new meaning-- as a guide rather than an attempt to fit in. From my limited knowledge of Indigenous beliefs, this kind of storytelling is very significant because, according to a book I'm reading, "Aboriginal Creation myths tell of the legendary totemic beings who had wandered over the continent in the Dreamtime, singing out the name of everything that crossed their path-- birds, animals, plants, rocks, waterholes--and so singing the world into existence." These paths are often called "dreaming-tracks" or "songlines," but to many Indigenous people they are "footprints of the ancestors" or "way of the law."
The second piece, ID, was less cohesive than the first. Each new sequence within the piece was a clear departure from the one before-- stage setting, costumes, dance styles, and music all changed dramatically from part to part. I had a hard time developing a clear narrative, but the piece did a great job of raising some interesting questions. For example, one scene opened with a row of five dancers at the front of the stage. Each had a large number painted on their chest-- 1, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16. My interpretation was that they corresponded to blood percentages. Similar to the United States, you can gain access to different kinds of government assistance if you can prove that you are least 1/16th Indigenous. Thinking about it from my own perspective, I know that I'm likely at least 1/16th Welsh, but this has no meaning for me. On the other hand, my 1/4 Italian Catholic heritage has a great deal more meaning to me than my 1/2 Eastern European Jewish heritage. I know some Americans who do not know their background at all. Identity and heritage are so complicated.
Another scene in ID depicted the antics of rowdy schoolchildren on a set of bleachers. One child sat alone at the top of the bleachers, quietly keeping to herself. Finally, all of the "children" sat down, painted their faces black, and smiled broadly. The scene closed with a loud CLICK and a bright flash. No matter how different the majority of the kids acted, they would still be viewed and depicted as black.
I attended the performance with a couple of anthropologists. As you can imagine, this led to some very interesting discussions about traditional Indigenous culture and dance. They suggested I look up this video by Yothu Yindi called Treaty. I hope it gives you a sense of both some traditional dance styles and some cultural issues.