BWW Review: BENNELONG at Perth Festival
Bangarra Dance Theatre is like no other performing arts company on this tiny blue pebble in the sky. It is beyond compare, not only because of who and what it represents, the First Nations people of Australia and their incredible stories, but also because of its unsurpassed quality of production. Bennelong is, of course, no exception to this ethos and Perth is incredibly lucky to have had this devastatingly beautiful work presented at Perth Festival 2020.
Though Woollarawarre Bennelong is but one man whose life has held significance in Australia's colonial history, his story is a vehicle to tell a collective narrative about colonisation from the Aboriginal perspective. We witness his birth and early life, though Artistic Director and choreographer Stephen Page admits in the programme, there is little historical information on what his life was like prior to it being appropriated by the English. We witness the interaction between the first penal colonists and Bennelong's community, which was relatively peaceful and coexistent.
And then 1788 comes.
A rear drop is lifted and the numbers 1788 are writ large in blood red, towering, textured like rope or muscle striations. Elma Kris dances solo, and embodies the spirit of country and ancestors throughout the piece, linking past to present. We learn through Page's narrative that Bennelong is taken out of his world by English soldiers, veritably stripped of his identity, and put on display in England. He is never reassimilated back into his country, with his people; he's unable to find peace or home.
The Bangarra dancers give us an account of people straddling two worlds, who are trying with varying degrees of success to hold two opposing identities within themselves. They express the utter grief that First Nations people feel at having lost their country to outsiders, having lost their children to diseases brought in by white people. They express the despair and frustration of living within a rigid system that confines people in boxes.
We talk a lot about the trauma of colonisation, but rarely do we understand it and feel it unless we come face to face with people who have experienced it, who are willing to share this experience. Page goes one step further and has recreated it through this work of art. The dancers continue to recreate it, through every performance, and new audiences are asked to take on this trauma for one hour in a darkened theatre each night. It's not too much to ask of patrons to sit in this space of grief and pain for a brief moment in their lives; they will gain so much in return - understanding, knowledge, empathy.
Composer Steve Francis has created a score that is ethereal, gut-wrenching and transporting, while Jacob Nash's set design tells a story of its own as he moves from the circular shapes of the natural world to the rigid, rectangular shapes imposed by English society on the Australian landscape and psyche. Lighting Designer Nick Schlieper ties it all together, adding to the depth, drama and colour of the story that unfolds.
Bennelong lingers in the mind and in the solar plexus, leaving an indelible emotional imprint that only the rarest works of art have the power to make.
Bangarra Dance Theatre's Bennelong was presented as part of Perth Festival from February 6 to 9 at the Heath Legder Theatre.