writers on dancing



Bangarra Dance Theatre
Brooklyn Academy of Music
Brooklyn, NY
October 19, 2004

By Susan Reiter
copyright © 2004 by Susan  Reiter

When it comes to boneless, slithery movement and molding the human body into the equivalent of primordial ooze, Bangarra Dance Theatre's dozen dancers can't be beat. They were called upon to become supple, creaturely representations of various aspects of Aboriginal creation myths in "Bush," a 75-minute work, first performed in May 2003, by Stephen Page and Frances Rings. But despite their exertions and a vaguely ritualistic atmosphere of discovery and initiation, it did not achieve the cumulative mythological impact that was apparently intended.

Mr. Page and Ms. Rings drew their inspiration from the Dreamtime creation stories of Arnhem Land, a region of Australia, and clearly the work grew out of a deeply personal motivation and aims to honor and express the powerful impact these myths have had on the choreographers. But the program ill-advisedly includes its own review, describing the work as "a lush and contemporary celebration of beauty, ritual and music" and telling us that "we enter a mysterious secret space to witness nature's sacred poetry." That's powerful stuff to live up to, and works nine sections, through which the dancers progressed from resembling early life forms to becoming sleek modern dancers in what looked like a black-clad version of a Martha Graham floor exercise display, lacked a theatrical impetus and relied too much on repetition and atmospherics.

Too often the ground-hugging, animalistic movement did not achieve the promised level of transcendence. Much of it looked like a highly advanced yoga class, with many recognizable poses incorporated. The dancers did, in the early sections, hold their arms and hands in an intriguingly non-human manner, suggesting life forms in an earlier stage of development. And the dim, murky lighting did evoke a long-ago time with the earth still in formation, and allowed for subtle entrances and beginnings—as when several men descended, seemingly out of nowhere, slowly writhing and twisting as though they had just emerged from a cocoon.

The men and women are often separate in "Bush," especially early on. Kathy Balngayngu Marika, a powerful earth-mother figure with wild long grey hair who is the work's focal force and guiding spirit, leads six women who inch along the ground. They perform a ritual that involves miming the scooping and pouring of water. When they finally achieve verticality, they have clearly entered a new phase, as they stamp with deeply bent knees in a circle.

The men are a particularly flexible, fearless lot, propelling themselves through slinky, undulations in a manner that truly seems otherworldly. The costuming—some of which barely lets you see where material ends and skin begins—makes a major contribution to allowing the dancers to take on an ancient, primal appearance in the early sections.

One section presents the dancers as "Three Epitaphs"-like lumpy creatures, wearing grey-black hooded costumes and moving with spidery limbs. Gradually, they take on more recognizably human forms, and as they do, the incantatory power of the early sections is greatly lessened, especially when Ms. Rings performs a bland, writhing solo. Ms. Marika is always observing—sometimes from a window-like ledge upstage from which she peers down on the action—and presumably leading as the dancers evolve form one myth to the next.

Often, I was reminded of Moses Pendleton's nature-oriented works, such as "Opus Cactus," and wished that "Bush" had found a comparable way to evoke the kind of resonance and theatrical magic that those do in their finest moments. "Bush" felt more like a plodding accumulation that did not build, and the culminating "Ceremony," which harnessed the dancers' ensemble power, came across as earnest but ultimately shallow. Too often, the choreography relied on unison work and depended on the intriguing music—a blend of world-music elemental rhythms and sounds with slick synthesized sounds—to enhance and deepen the impact of the visuals. (And when it comes to this kind of score, Mr. Pendleton also does it better, assembling a stunning, varied and evocative mix.)

Photos:  Jack Vartoogian.
Volume 2, No. 40
October 25, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Susan Reiter


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