This was undoubtedly the most self-indulgent show that one might ever experience from a Major Performing Art Group company! Navel-gazing (and showing) wasn’t in it as Bangarra celebrated the life and work of the man who conjured twenty seven scores for its dancers “ Roy David ‘Dubboo’ Page.
And why not? Mourning for his untimely death in 2016 is over. Respect, joy “ bordering on hysteria “ is timely. Though I have to say that, for me, the first half of respect for his creativity was more powerful than the glittering second half when the full-breadth of his career as a performer was on offer, and then multiplied to excess by the 18 dancers and two drag artistes who paid tribute to David Page’s own showoffmanship. And we got it all, from the Page family barbies where his sisters discovered an early penchant for wearing their clothes and a capacity for unselfconscious entertainment that would lead to a contract with Atlantic Records in his early teens as Little Davy Page.
A breaking voice may have brought that to an end “ though he clearly relished kicking Hoges in the shins en route “ but the continuing delight with which he could throw on a wig, leap on a table and simply perform will be familiar to anyone who caught one of the many return productions of his (and Louis Nowra’s) autobiographical show, ‘Page 8’ “ his number in the extended family hierarchy.
A sub-set of that hierarchy is Hunter Page-Lochard “ Stephen Page’s son, an increasingly familiar face from TV shows like ‘Cleverman‘, and, just possibly, David’s godson. He clearly saw the second half of ‘Dubboo‘ as a glorious opportunity to transgress as his uncle had done as Davina Cha Cha, though, arguably, he appeared just a couple of time too often in yet another sparkling outfit. I missed a lot of the references to shows and songs that David was associated with, which didn’t help.
But then Hunter had set the ball rolling at the very beginning with a sincere tribute to the his uncle’s key qualities: Through his ears we heard the sound of the land; his heart danced to the knowledge of the Ancestors. In the program, little brother and artistic director, Stephen Page amplified. His vision and dream for Bangarra created a wholly unique language that weaved together traditional song and movement. Over the years he worked with more than a hundred traditional singers across the country. He channelled the hum of land and drove a revolution in contemporary Aboriginal dance.
On the ABC the other day, Page had explained that this revolution was licensed by Djakapurra (Munyarryun) and the Yolngu elders to fuse traditional and contemporary music.
At Carriageworks, we were thrilled by the live combination of Djakapurra’s earth-shaking tones and the delicate timbres of a string quartet “ playing David’s music, now orchestrated from his electronic scores by Iain Grandage, composer and soon-to-be Artistic Director of the venerable Perth Festival. From the marvellous videos we saw of David at work, it became apparent that he made music with his hands, weaving them in the air to indicate tone and direction of the music rather than putting pen to staves on paper. And he called himself a songman rather than a composer. Grandage did a fabulous job in converting those electrified gestures into conventional scores.
And of course the music inspired the dance. We saw excerpts from 11 Bangarra dances dating back to ‘Ninni‘ and ‘Ochres‘ in 1994. Sadly, that latter work “ already given an anniversary update “ now felt almost balletic, and I could have sworn the dancers were no longer actually ochred! Nothing ochred about the ‘Alcohol‘ dance from 2000 “ a poignant urban derro dance lead by Beau Dean Riley Smith at his most powerful.
Musicians, too, were inspired by David. A wonderful snap of him and Djakapurra in London when they were just kids was accompanied by a heartfelt commentary from the Yolngu man that David taught me a lot about living in cities, and helped my music become contemporary. Maybe the reverse is just as true? But ‘Purra was able to bring his traditional languages mastery to the variety of Aboriginal men that featured in ‘Skin‘ in 2000, matched by tears and songs from Archie Roach as he described life on the streets of Melbourne. And the adaptable Ursula Yovich contributed a deeply bluesy song from ‘Bush‘ in 2003 to expand the picture.
As I was watching ‘Dubboo‘, I was coincidentally writing about the broader sector of non-traditional Aboriginal dance across Australia for ‘RealTime‘. At least eight Indigenously-identifying companies exist, but to a large extent, feel themselves in the shadows of Bangarra. Its pre-eminent position within the Australia Council’s Major Performing Arts Group seems to mock their scrabble for funding, though the senior company has undoubtedly inspired many of their dancers sheerly by showing Aboriginal artists performing wonderfully on stage. Few of these companies, though, identify with Bangarra’s need to maintain its links with the classical cultures of the North.
Sure, there are many Blak stories in the cities. But a judicious and appropriate reflection of the ancient roots of Aboriginal culture surely adds richness to the mix “ as Stephen Page, Dubboo and Djakapurra Munyarryun proved at Carriageworks last week.