When we think of the art of dance, many things come to mind: grace, power, beauty and creativity, to name a few. We might conjure images of our favorite music videos, popular television shows or beloved, sugar plum-filled holiday traditions. But one of the things less commonly associated with dance (especially in the US) is the art form as a means of exploring, preserving and sharing history. Our contemporary interpretations and digestions of dance have been overtaken by the glitz and glam of the entertainment industry and the culture of social media. While those facets of dance have their own place and impact on modern culture, it is imperative that we remember that for centuries, dance has been integral to many cultural and religious traditions.
Before the development of the written word, movement was the language by which the history and stories of a given culture were preserved and passed on to the next generation. For the past 30 years, the artists at Bangarra Dance Theatre have used their artistry to do just that and more. The company has dedicated itself to discovering the lesser known stories of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and bringing those stories to audiences around the world. Their movement aesthetic is influenced not only by innovative contemporary dance, but also by 65,000 years of Australian culture.
Each of the artists at Bangarra Dance Theatre has an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander background, deepening their connection to the company, its body of work and the mission of setting the highest standards for cultural exchange and preservation through dance.
Bangarra Dance Theatre is set to make its Chicago debut November 22 and 23 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. DancerMusic Editor Kristi Licera had the opportunity to speak with Bangarra Dance Theatre Senior Dancer Rikki Mason about the works in the program, as well as get insights to his experience with the company. Here’s what Rikki told us:
Our mission is to create inspiring experiences that change society. When we have the opportunity to do that in a new country or city, we thrive.
Kristi Licera: This year, Bangarra Dance Theatre celebrates its 30th anniversary. However, it is important to note that the foundation of the company’s aesthetic technique encompasses much more than contemporary dance technique; in fact, it is the culmination of 65,000 years of culture embodied by some of Australia’s most talented dance artists. Each of the artists at Bangarra Dance Theatre has an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander background, deepening their connection to the company, its body of work and the mission of setting the highest standards for cultural exchange and preservation through dance. What has your experience been like with the company thus far, and how has it helped deepen your understanding of your own personal and family history? What have been some of your most memorable moments in your time with Bangarra?
Rikki Mason: I was lucky enough to join Bangarra in 2014 and am coming to the end of my sixth year. I am really enjoying my time performing and love working with a company that has such a strong message. I have learnt a lot about myself, not only as an artist but also as a person. I am constantly exposed to experiences that will forever stay with me and have shaped my life in ways I could never have imagined. Every day brings new and stimulating information and I hope to never stop learning and absorbing. I will be forever grateful to our Artistic Director, Stephen Page, for bringing me into the Bangarra family.
I came into the company not knowing a great deal about my family history. It wasn’t spoken about, and that’s just the way it was. My family history wasn’t documented, so trying to trace it back is a difficult process; due to lack of discussion, a lot of history has been lost. Joining the company has inspired me to continue searching to find out more.
It’s very special and hard to beat the feeling of dancing for the communities that have entrusted the company with their stories…
Rikki: I’ve been extremely fortunate to travel all over the world with the company, as well as around to some of the most remote parts of Australia; I love traveling and experiencing new and exciting places. I’ve had some incredible moments during my time with the company, but I have narrowed it down to a five:
- My very first opening night with Bangarra at the Sydney Opera House in 2014.
- The first time I danced for my grandmother, who was in her late 90’s, which is where my Indigenous Heritage runs through – it was a significant night for our family.
- Visiting and performing for communities all over Australia – these to me are some of the most unforgettable performances, as they are just so raw. Our production crew literally lays down Tarkett (flooring) and we perform on the local basketball court. It’s very special and hard to beat the feeling of dancing for the communities that have entrusted the company with their stories in such a setting. We feed the communities and have resident dogs walking through the show – moments I’ll never take for granted.
- Learning traditional dances from around Australia is also something that I love. When we return to country to perform, we usually run workshops with the communities and are given the opportunity to learn traditional dances from that area. It’s a lovely way for us to connect and share.
- Lastly, performing “The Call” from our Spirit program, which the Chicago audiences will see. This was originally made on Russell Page, our beloved brother who is sadly no longer with us. Russell was a lead dancer at Bangarra and Stephen’s brother. He left a legacy and it’s a great honour to perform the role he created. I think about him every time I perform it and know he is performing alongside me.
It’s always exciting to revisit and learn works from the past, as it allows us dancers and the audience to really visit the roots of the company.
Kristi: Bangarra’s performance series at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance (preceded by a panel discussion at the Field Museum) marks the company’s Chicago debut. Can you give us some insight to the works that will be included in the program? How do the selected works represent the company’s past, present and future?
Rikki: It’s a very exciting time for the company to perform in Chicago. It means a brand-new audience will experience Bangarra for the very first time. Our mission is to create inspiring experiences that change society. When we have the opportunity to do that in a new country or city, we thrive. We love performing and sharing our stories with the world, and the more people get to see and absorb our message, the better.
Chicago is lucky as the program we are bringing showcases such a diverse range of repertoire. This will give the audience a chance to see early works that really changed the course of Bangarra and started to bring them to the forefront of Australian Dance, combined with more recent and modern works.
Rikki: We will be presenting two programs in Chicago. The first will be our Spirit program, which is essentially a “Best of Bangarra” program. This contains excerpts of Bangarra repertoire works from the last 30 years; it’s an insight into Bangarra’s history. It’s always exciting to revisit and learn works from the past, as it allows us dancers and the audience to really visit the roots of the company. Some excerpts go as far back as 1994 and mid-2000’s. It’s a remarkable program and one of my absolute favourites to perform.
The second half of the night is a work from 2016 called Nyapanyapa, which is the story of Yirrkala artist Nyapanyapa Yunupingu. This program allows the dancers to bring her story and paintings to life through dance. Nyapanyapa’s life stories are vividly illustrated in both abstract and symbolic form which we translate through movement. She paints as a form of meditation and our performance responds to that meditative sensitivity. In 2018, we took her story home to North East Arnhem Land, where her family and community were able to experience her story theatrically. It’s an honour to share her story on an international platform. It’s a beautiful piece and I think the audience will really connect to it.
I feel these works are a great representation of the company’s history, as they showcase the past and the present. We are in our fourth decade and in a part of a new cycle, allowing for our dancers of a younger generation to drive the mission of the company under the direction of our Artistic Director, Stephen Page.
Bangarra Dance Theatre makes its Chicago debut November 22 & 23, 2019 at the Harris Theatre for Music and Dance (205 E. Randolph Drive, Chicago, IL, 60601). Performances take place at 7:30pm each evening, with a matinee performance on November 23 at 2pm presented as part of the Exelon Family Series. Tickets are available online via www.harristheaterchicago.org/tickets or by calling the box office at 312-334-7777 (Monday–Friday, 12:00PM–5:00PM). For tickets to the matinee performance, visit www.harristheaterchicago.org/tickets/fam1.
To learn more about Bangarra Dance Theatre, visit www.bangarra.com.au.