Preview: Bangarra Dance Theatre, Sadler's Wells, London

Australia's true heritage brought to life
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The Independent Culture

One of the most haunting spots I've ever visited is the Aboriginal village of Yirrkala in Australia's northern province of Arnhem Land. It's the traditional home of a hunter-gatherer culture, but pervaded by the sadness of an exploited and brutalised society: the forests through which its forefathers roamed are now replaced by gaping red holes where a mining company has scoured the earth. But bark painting is still going strong, and the traditional songs and dances are being sedulously preserved, as audiences at Sadler's Wells will discover when Bangarra Dance comes to town.

Bangarra's director-choreographer Stephen Page has become one of Australia's leading creative voices over the last few years, working in film, collaborating with the Australian Ballet, and devising ceremonies for Olympic events. His stage works have triumphantly conquered the mainstream, but his prime concern is to bolster the identity of his own people, and to celebrate their culture. After discovering that culture as a teenager - his deracinated parents formed part of the oppressed urban underclass - he went to Yirrkala to draw strength from the source, and the dance style he absorbed there, with its syncopated beats and symbolic animal mimicry, now infuses his work.

"To survive in the modern world you have to play the mainstream game," he says. "And if we can do that while preserving our own rules and customs, that's great, but the actual situation for the indigenous people of Australia is getting steadily worse. Our weak government has issued no statement that recognises our country's own first inhabitants. And the white poison being pumped into our communities - alcohol and petrol-sniffing - is destroying them. At least they still have their language, and some residual optimism."

And in Page and his composer brother David, aided by the Yirrkala elder Kathy Balngayngu Marik, they also have some doughty theatrical champions.

Michael Church

14 to 16 September (08707 377 737; www.sadlerswells.com)

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