A stunning production, not to be missed.
Bennelong is a spell binding journey that captures the effect of displacement and division experienced by perhaps the most famous Aboriginal man of colonial Australia. With his latest work, choreographer Stephen Page has embarked on a journey to revisit the tortured life of a man who tried to cross the cultural divide, only to eventually succumb to despair after being rejected from both worlds. The result is a mesmerising but chilling production of the impact first contact had upon Aboriginal culture, the effects of which are still being felt today.
The show commences with a smoking ceremony, with the male troupe and female troupe situated on either side of a striking, glowing circle. Steve Francis’ musical accompaniment is atmospheric and powerful, featuring indigenous rhythms that convey the strength of the Eora nation. As Bennelong is born he is bathed by the women of the clan with the tenderness and dedication of ancient custom. Soon the mood changes. As the tempo of the music quickens, the sound of waves crashing signals that newcomers have arrived by sea. The arrival of the ships portrayed by stark, blinding floodlights contrasts sharply with the rhythmic natural flow of Bennelong’s tribe. Jennifer Irwin’s costume design of the dancers, previously featuring intricate feathered garbs powdered with ochre dust is replaced with plain, simplified clothing. Under Jacob Nash’s set direction, the stage is wiped clean.
In 70 minutes, Bennelong captures the drama and intensity of what must have a tumultuous and confused life. The heartbreak of the smallpox scene, where members of Bennelong’s clan emerge shaking through a smoking doorway to symbolise their suffering from disease, is immensely traumatic. Conversely, the jubilation of Bennelong’s assimilation in England, portrayed through the dance of a gala ball gives a heightened sense of the grandeur that English society would have displayed to exhibit their foreign novelties. Integrating contemporary motifs to highlight the resonating effect of colonialism in Australia, a denim-clad dance against a polished steel backdrop illustrates the bland industriousness of modernity without the richness of history and culture. Enlisting the assistance of dramaturg, Alana Valentine, Page captures the essence of Bennelong’s biography as a narrative, a story which has a resounding impression on the present day. Although not necessarily a chronological account of Bennelong’s life, the collaboration of choreographer and dramaturg gives context to the storyline of Bennelong’s life.
Beau Dean Riley Smith gives an exceptional performance as the tormented protagonist, suffering from the loss of his clan and death of his wives. The haunting epilogue of 1813 / People of the Land which sees Bennelong caged in the colonial trappings of Sydney is a poignant finale to a dramatic scene which saw him being rejected by the women of his tribe. Cradling his admiralty hat as a drinking vessel, Bennelong ends up imprisoned in a symbolic edifice, perhaps ironically alluding to the structures that currently bear his name. Elma Kris gives an inspirational solo performance in Rewind 1788 against the backdrop of stark red letters. Daniel Riley as Arthur Phillip is also mesmerising to watch and complements Smith perfectly as the friendship between the two main characters develops.
With a title that in modern times is more suggestive of Sydney affluence than the real life person, this performance of Bennelong coaxes us to learn more about the extraordinary life of a fascinating human being and raises prevalent issues about cultural misappropriation and the ongoing quest for repatriation of Aboriginal artefacts. Every breath, each movement and the whole experience of Bennelong is powerful. The production is hauntingly appropriate for the tragic biography of a man that attempted to cross the cultural divide only to find that he would become ostracised from both worlds.
By Revelly Robinson
Rating: 5 stars
Bennelong by Bangarra Dance Theatre
Performed at Canberra Theatre
3 to 5 August 2017
Choreographed by Stephen Page
Composed by Steve Francis