In August 2009, I sat down with Stephen Page to review his 20 years running the Bangarra Dance Theatre. After another 13 years, Page has announced that he will finally retire next year. So I thought it worthwhile to run his older thoughts again – few of which have gone out of currency. Most commentaries on Page’s retirement – and the announcement that Frances Rings, his Associate Artistic Director will succeed him – have concentrated on his running Bangarra. But of course he took on even bigger things at two Olympic Games and a single Adelaide Festival. Of course, this interview – originally published by RealTime magazine – came before the second tragic death of one of Stephen’s collaborating brothers – David, the company Songman:

“I can’t say it’s been a flawless 20 years”, admits a philosophical Stephen Page. “But I think we’ve played the cards we were dealt pretty well. We’ve been honest players; never going into debt, fulfilling our core funding responsibility to take our dance into rural or remote communities and our 20% for international touring. It’s overseas we regularly sell out 1000 seat venues – and help to get the Australian Ballet into the Chatelet (in Paris)! But, back home, there’s no signage at The Wharf saying ‘Bangarra Dance Theatre‘; it just says Sydney Theatre Company and Sydney Dance Company!”.

“Perhaps we’re a little too national for our cultural masters in NSW?”.

The Stephen Page who’s just a little chunkier than he was as a kid from Brisbane, dancing with, first the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association (NAISDA) then the Sydney Dance Company, may have “given up on his ego 10 years ago”, but he’s not given up on his feistyness!

Interestingly, 10 years ago Page was just about at the peak of his fame. He’d already done the Atlanta Olympics flag hand-over to Sydney with its memorably mad roos on bikes; he was poised to choreograph and co-direct the ‘Awakening’ segment of the Sydney Olympics with “one thousand old myalls from the Desert” and Donny Woolagoodja’s amazing Wandjina rising from the earth; and he was about to be delivered the Artistic Directorship of the 2004 Adelaide Festival.

And Bangarra was involved in all of them – you don’t get Stephen Page without his clan.

It’s just a crying shame that we couldn’t have that 2004 Festival without the baggage left over from Peter Sellars’ chaotic 2002 Festival. Page’s hands were tied.

Which, in a sense they have been since birth. Page’s Aboriginality is both his total raison d’etre, but it’s also a cross to bear. We talked far more about that than dance; dance is easy compared to “negotatiating the cultural protocols between North and South – sharing all the mind-fuck stuff with the full-bloods and really digging into the wonderful complexity of Aboriginal culture. White people are always resisting that complexity – it’s so much easier to kill it off”.

“But it is an effort to maintain that complexity”, Page continued, “the protocols especially…things like whether Djakapurra (Munyarryun, the Yolngu leader from Arnhemland who was cultural consultant to Bangarra for many years and went on to star in the Olympics Opening) could sing a healing song with no proper dance connection, with lights and with the wrong costumes? But working for the survival of our culture is what we have to do. And it’s worth it when a company like the Commonwealth Bank comes aboard as a sponsor of Bangarra to learn something about the protocols from us – dealing with cultural respect”.

Then came the old feist again: “I knew from Ochres I’d got it right”.

Didn’t we all? I caught that breakthrough work during its initial 5-day tryout showing in 1994 and raved: “(It) simply blew the socks off as it slipped so comfortably from the domestic to the mythic – and back again – making dancers invisible in the internalised intensity of their performance, then transforming Arnhemland’s chalky ochre shield against the evils of the night into ordinary urban make-up as they re-humanised”. (Sydney Review Nov 1994)

Last year, Page must have continued to get it pretty right – his work, ‘Mathinna‘ about the young 19th Century Tassie Aboriginal girl, torn between two cultures as the Governor’s wife took her in, garnered two Helpmann Awards for Best Choreography and Best Dance Work.

How come Stephen Page too isn’t just as torn between two cultures – torn and then spat out?

It’s often reported that the “great robber in the making from the Bronx of South Brisbane” (his own words) turned his life around with a single visit to Yirrkala in Arnhemland – ‘discovering’ traditional Aboriginal culture in the hands of the Yunupingu, Marika and Munyarryun families. In fact, Page wants to make it clear that his full-blood father’s family from the Munaldjali clan of the Yugambeh tribe, once at Beaudesert – not to mention Nunukle cousins on his Mum’s side – often gathered for fishing, campfires and music, and, above all, stories. “They weren’t traditional myths”, admits Stephen, “but we found out where the landmarks were. They were rekindling what had been taken away – with nuances of the spiritual connections”.

“The politics came later”. Page was referring to his time at NAISDA, where they all wore black, red and yellow headbands, went on many marches and pickets, and had lectures from Charlie Perkins, Gary Foley and the Bostocks. Even the dance was political in the hands of Black American modern dance-trained tutors like Carol Johnson and Cheryl Stone. “They were using art as a medicine, or an ingredient in their politics”.

But what Page calls his “solid roots” came from the North. “Philip Lanley from Mornington Island was the first Djakapurra – creating a melting pot out of an honest exchange of culture”. But the Yirrkala connection had started for Page even earlier, in 1984, and there’ve been four stays since. “We still send our young dancers to Dhalunbuy to knock some of the wonderful arrogance out of them. And we went to the Torres Strait recently – taking some of their stories back to them in dance. Afterwards, the old people cried – thanking us for hanging on to their stories so that their kids would want to inherit them”.

“We’re a little satellite pod entrusted with their stories – taking them into the 21st Century. That’s what matters – not the Kennedy Centre or the Chatelet. If we lose that circle of connection, we should close down and head for the sacred cave”.

The North/South connection doesn’t always work, of course. Several of the tutors simply “couldn’t hack” living in the city. And even such an assiduous worker on the protocols as Page finds himself “still discriminated against by the traditionals today – we’re not really Black enough for them. They see the stories being stolen from them. But I belong to the heritage of this land – it doesn’t matter that I’m not a full-blood. What matters is where I come down on the big debate today – is the Black perspective equally valid to the white one? Why was my old Dad – the best concreting man in South Brisbane – never given the chance or the money to develop his own business? He still thinks he has to work today to validate himself; and he’s 80”.

“And why is the Australia Council so hopeless with Indigenous art? It’s just a commodity for them – the Australian identity to wave like a flag overseas. But what is the essence of Oz without it? OK – membership of AMPAG has given us security and the potential to follow our own dreams. But it’s bloody challenging to make up all those business plans!”.

Page would rather channel his energies into ‘Fire‘, the retrospective work that tours the East coast through 2009 to celebrate Bangarra’s (a word meaning “make fire”) 20th anniversary. “How do I pay homage to 100 dancers and more than 30 clan elders who’ve been our history?”, he wonders. None more so than his brother Russell – who, like David the composing brother, actually preceded Stephen into Bangarra – but died at the height of his powers. “I need to use the celebrations to bring our people together”, he concluded. “Our politicians are just so exhausted living a schizophrenic life fighting white power, we need to get Black leaders together four times a year – we need to talk.

“I don’t know why there are no sister dance companies for Bangarra across the country; why no Bangarra theatre, no Bangarra music? Why am I one of so few who are fortunate enough to be able to create in my own cave, with a stream of youngsters wanting to tell their own stories to me, now that I’m the elder?”.

All good questions that the likes of Wesley Enoch have begun to answer. Though, oddly, a couple of years ago when RealTime re-ran this interview, nascent Blak dance companies let it be known that Stephen’s sheer pre-eminence in the world of Indigenous performance may have been a factor in others being hidden by Bangarra’s big shadow. It’ll be interesting to see whether Frances Rings can maintain that “circle of connection” that Page referred to earlier – the connection between the tribal north and the urban south. For none of those nascent Blak companies had that in their DNA.

Rings made her choreographic debut for Bangarra as far back as 2002, tackling a further eight major works including ‘Unaipon‘, for which she received several industry awards. Stepping away from Bangarra in 2005, she danced with Meryl Tankard, Leigh Warren and Legs on the Wall and choreographed for the West Australian Ballet and Tasdance, before returning to Bangarra in 2019.

The Kokatha woman, also of German descent, remembers being dumbstruck after watching Preying Mantis Dreaming, Page’s first full-length work created for Bangarra. “I couldn’t talk afterwards”, she recalls, “firstly because I had never seen this style of storytelling or even proud blackfellas on a stage telling stories to this level and on this platform”.

Rehearsals are now underway for ‘Wudjang: Not The Past’, Page’s final full-length work for the stage to premiere at the Sydney Festival in January. Appropriately, it’s a tribute to his full-blood father’s ancestry in the Munaldjali clan of the Yugambeh tribe, and the stories shared with him around the campfire during family gatherings.