Adelaide Festival 2022: Wudjang: Not the Past

Who: Bangarra Dance Theatre/ Sydney Theatre Company

What: Dance Theatre

When: 15 – 18 March

Where: Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre

More ticket information on Adelaide Festival website

To my embarrassment, I was first introduced to the iconic Bangarra Dance Theatre through the award-winning documentary Firestarter: The Story of Bangarra in 2020. If you haven’t seen it yet, please do soon – it’s as deeply spiritual and uplifting as it is heart-wrenching, and it explains how and why Bangarra has established itself as a crucial element of modern Australian history and culture.

Adelaide Festival is lucky enough to host the world premiere season of Bangarra’s latest production and collaboration with Sydney Theatre Company, Wudjang: Not the Past. This production is significant for several reasons, not least of all because it is the last to be produced with Stephen Page at the helm of Bangarra as creative director. Page is the youngest of the three brothers who founded the dance company, and he has directed, choreographed and co-written this production.

The narrative is acutely topical. Wudjang tells the story of Aboriginal ancestral remains which are uncovered during the construction of a dam. A young woman, a descendant of the uncovered Wudjang, the maternal ancestor, is at first reluctant to engage with the event but in time comes to learn and appreciate its significance through listening and finally participating in the story of her Country. The recent reburial of ancestral remains in Adelaide comes to mind, and I’m certain ancestral remains are uncovered regularly as property and land development continues to boom across Australia, often at the expense of our environment and heritage. Thus, Wudjang depicts a very real, contemporary story.

Naturally, the dancing is exceptional, with the mesmerising performances of Elma Kris and Lillian Banks taking centre stage with their breath-taking elegance and raw emotion. Light is also central to this performance – it is crafted, timed and played with using colour, smoke and dust to create both enthralling trance-like moods as well as eerie, desolate spaces of violence and mourning. The use of song in both English and Language also played a larger part than anticipated, helping to bring forth the narrative and accompanied by a vivacious live band – the lines between dancer and musician are frequently blurred. This is indeed a highly ambitious work from Page; an epic, operatic ceremony. Key set pieces are stark and imposing, evoking the brutal force of large-scale land development. The costumes are intricate and earthy. While all sequences were captivating, the highlights of the performance for me were the opening and closing, both full of drama, spirit and infused with an ancient culture that is boldly brought forth into the present and set on its course well into the future- definitely not the past.

Wudjang: Not the Past is a triumphant celebration of the land and its people, a work that confronts deep pain while delivering closure and hope through Bangarra’s signature class and panache.

4.5 out of 5 stars

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