Preserving Stories: "Awakenings" - an indigenous 'Swan Lake'
Choreographer Transforms Aboriginal Tales Into Dance
Friday, October 10, 2008; Page WE45
Stephen Page sees himself as a storyteller as well as a choreographer.
For the Australian-born dancemaker, story lies at the root of his work, mesmerizing dances drawn from the culture and history of his indigenous ancestors. His creations, a blend of contemporary dance and traditional aboriginal song, dance and story, are inspired by an estimated 40,000-year-old tradition passed down orally from one generation to the next.
"I love being a storyteller. The challenge for me is crossing over to the multifaceted mediums in art that are foundations for telling those stories," says Page, 43, who has directed and choreographed for Bangarra Dance Theatre since 1991.
On its return to the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater on Thursday, the critically acclaimed Sydney-based troupe will cull from works Page and others have crafted in its two-decade history for the Washington premiere of "Awakenings." Bangarra, which means "to make fire" in Wiradjeri, the native language in New South Wales, fuses the ancient and modern, the contemporary and the traditional, the urban and the outback. Page, his dancers, singers and musicians rely on elders to make sure their creations neither insult nor misrepresent their ancestors.
For "Awakenings," the spirit guide, who plays a prominent role in the performance, is Djakapurra Munyarryun, 35, from Arnhem Land in the northern territory of Australia. A didgeridoo player and cultural adviser to the company, Munyarryun's input ensures that the past is properly represented.
The "Awakenings" story follows a young woman on a ceremonial journey from familiar human territory into the wilderness, a landscape of birds, fish and mammals, all portrayed with distinctively human qualities by the company. "It's a bit like an indigenous 'Swan Lake,' " Page says. "There's a 'Swan Lake' in every culture. . . . This is a version of that journey where the human and creature worlds come together."
Growing up a city kid, Page recalls that he had little awareness of his parents' roots: His mother and father were part of the so-called stolen generation, forbidden to speak their ancestral language or practice their traditions.
At 17, he found his calling: "I went to an aboriginal dance college in Sydney. It was my first connection with traditional forms of aboriginal dance." Soon he was traveling across the country to rural reservations, where he learned the history and practices of aboriginal clans.
"I seemed to make a spiritual connection with people, their families there as I became curious about my mother and my father's people . . . wondering what would have been if we still practiced traditional forms of culture and hung on to our language.
"I work . . . not so much to romanticize traditional culture but to somehow awaken my knowledge of it and to use it as a seed for my own development and for the development of the company."
Bangarra Dance Theatre Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600.http://www.kennedy-center.org. Oct. 16-17. $22-$65.