It was an emotional night as the Bangarra Dance Theatre – wasn’t it once called Bangarra Aboriginal Dance Theatre? “ opened a triple bill of dances in Sydney which will tour the country until September and then head for the US and France. It was only last month that Bangarra’s Songman, David Page, died after contributing no fewer than 27 scores over the years to Bangarra “ including that for ‘Macq‘ in this triple bill. As Stephen Page, his brother, supposedly celebrating 25 years of work with the company, admitted to me just before opening night, It’s only the work that’s keeping me going. He also lost his mercurial dancing brother, Russell a decade or so ago.

Stephen had contributed ‘Nyapanyapa‘ to the bill. This, of course, is a tribute to the art and character of Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, the Yolgnu artist from East Arnhemland who has exhibited difference ever since she was youthful. For it was then that she was wounded and traumatised by a buffalo goring which detached her from her high-profile siblings such as Manduwuy (of Yothu Yindi), Galarrwuy (of the Northern Land Council) and Gulumbu, the late, great artist featured in, amongst other places, the Musee du quai Branly. When Nyapanyapa came eventually to art, it was to tell of her personal trauma in a way that challenged the ‘rules’ of Yolgnu painting, which invariably involve myth and ritual. She was a free spirit, and won the first NATSIAA 3D Award given to digital media by simply telling her story in words as well as pictures. Later, she moved to expressionism, motivating her barks and larrikidtj with abstract line marking that brought her recognition at the second NGA Triennial and found favour in Biennales alongside the world’s most innovative artists.

How on earth to encompass all this in dance? I was forced to recall ‘Sunday in the Park with George’, the Stephen Sondheim musical based on the Impressionist painting, the only other example of such a transition from the wall to the stage I could think of. It’s relatively easy to recreate the buffalo attack story “ Elma Kris’s Nyapanyapa with her two sisters, who flee as she has to face off Waangenga Blanco’s wide-horned, mightily muscled buffalo. But the psycho-trauma that followed is ignored by Page as the artist takes to painting bush-apple trees and ‘Wendy’s’, as the stick doll figures she featured in many barks are apparently called in Yirrkala after Nyapanyapa’s so-ordinary ‘Christian’ name. Both are lovely dance scenes, though, as a threesome in red recreates the fruity form of an apple, accompanied by the scrumping crunches of that apple being eaten, and as cut-out silhouettes of the dolls reveal human puppeteers. Threesomes, by the way, recur a lot in this triple bill.

Less obvious was the ‘niblets’ sequence decorated by an image on sale as a print by Nyapanyapa of geckoes, heads inward in a circle towards a central space. Neither print nor dance actually seemed to achieve what Page believes is the artist’s intention of showing just how distressed she feels about her ‘humbugging’ in the Yirrkala community as fellow-Yolgnu touch her up for the money she’s presumed to have earned from her art.

Much greater harmony of art and dance occurs to match Nyapanyapa’s expressionist work “ her meditative line-marking given three dimensions by designer Jacob Nash on the Drama Theatre’s huge backdrops as Page’s choreography matches his experience of sitting, drinking tea with the lady and watching her come up for breath after a series of meditative brush-strokes. Apparently, Stephen has wanted to attempt the art/dance crossover for many years, originally thinking an Emily Kngwarreye match might be made.

The substantial piece ends with dancers in grey returning still to the land as rocks, while Nyapanyapa’s characterful face emerges from her art on the backcloth, reflective of the personal aspect of her work. It was a joy that she herself was in the Sydney audience and apparently pleased by all she had seen.

The evening had begun on a tragic note as the 2013 work ‘Macq‘ was revived to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Appin Massacre, when the ‘sainted’ Governor Macquarie ordered the troops out to Appin to deal with the uppity Dharawal in as brutal a fashion as they chose to. The local Campbelltown Art Centre has a dramatic, one-sided art show on the subject. But Jasmin Sheppard’s updated choreography cogently caught the bifurcated nature of Macquarie’s character as he first ordered a tea-party to encourage Aboriginal co-operation “ portrayed wittily “ and then ordered a massacre when co-operation failed. Oddly, though, Sheppard ran the story in reverse, beginning with a sensational dance between a woman and her dead husband’s body, accompanied by a moving Dharawal mourning chant, and ending with the Governor writing out his orders to the military and dancing wildly. Premature guilt?

The piece was a wonderful reminder of David Page’s compositional skills – the use of Indigenous music, the framing of the piece with the sounds of mozzies, the use of the harpsichord to illuminate the 19th Century colonial spirit, and hints of chords from that wonderful song, ‘Strange Fruit‘ as bodies of the massacred are hanged from trees as a terrible message to those that had survived.

Good to note David’s legacy in composers Steve Francis and Paul Mac, both of whom wove sounds like the rasping of cockatoos and the intensity of Djakapurra Manyarryun’s voice into their music.

The Riley cousins’ work, ‘Miyagan‘ (choreography by company dancers Beau Dean Riley Smith and Daniel Riley) was announced as a celebration of their Wiradjuri heritage and culture “ though that was pretty hard to discern. But their abstract, and at times lightning-fast choreography more than made up for that absence of clear content beneath the ever-spreading leaves of Jacob Nash’s evocative design.