Dance: In step with the spirits

BANGARRA QUEEN ELIZABETH HALL LONDON
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The Independent Culture
FORGET THE millennium. The Bangarra Dance Theatre's visit to London is, we are told, part of a world tour for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Arts Festival. How's that for jumping the gun?

But in a more serious sense, timelessness is the theme of the evening. The company was set up 10 years ago to combine traditional rituals and myths of Australia's Aboriginal and Islander people with modern dance and music. It has established itself to the point where its director, Stephen Page, recently choreographed Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring for a mixed cast of his own dancers and those of the Australian ballet. And the present show, The Dreaming, looks back to Australian pre-history when, according to Aboriginal belief, spirits roamed free over the land and the waters.

Another of the Page family, David, is responsible for the score, for me the least rewarding part: sometimes evocative of wild life or primitive Australian instruments, but mixed with a fashionable, presumably synthesised sound that flattens the effect.

Two elements, dry and wet, govern the contrasted halves of The Dreaming. In the first, the dances move separately, apparently enacting secret rituals. Three men, abrupt and aggressive, suggest some kind of abstruse threat. One of them, Djakapurra Munyarryun, apparently older than the other dancers and markedly much larger, carries a weapon which he handles with playful ease. He is also, in spite of his bulk, the most striking mover of them all.

He also smears white ochre powder on his chest and face at the beginning and spills some in a pattern on the floor, which later gets spread around and on to the dancers' clothes. Other ochre colours, through to a deep red, are used in the make-up. This natural powder is not only a symbol of the earth, but also used as a medicine, so its significance in the action is twofold.

During this first half, the five women enter only when the men are away. Their dances are tentative, even subservient; at one point they crawl about on hands and knees, which may be meant to suggest some kind of animal life, but not obviously so.

The second half, evoking seas and rivers, brings the dancers together in duets and ensembles, although still with some solos. Now the movement is more fluent and sensuous; we are meant to think of fish which, a programme note tells us, represent unborn souls. Whereas the men dominated dry land, the women are more prominent in this watery section, becoming obsessive objects for the men, and several of them have boldly slippery solos.

Are they in the end caught by the men? I think that it is rather more a free coming together, a sense of community that closes the action on a note of quiet assurance.

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