Bangarra dancers celebrate Aboriginal culture, with or without lights

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA, Madeleine Coorey- Deborah Brown has danced at the Sydney Opera House and on other famous stages around the world, but performances on the dirt of remote Australian Aboriginal communities are her most nerve-wracking.
It is these stripped back Outback dances which can be the most beautiful, says Brown, a choreographer and dancer with the acclaimed Bangarra Dance Theatre, which is inspired by Australia's ancient indigenous culture.

"It can be just headlights of the car and the dirt and we do a performance," Brown, a descendant of the Wakaid clan from the Torres Strait islands in Australia's north, tells AFP.
"They've done creek beds... we built our own set on Murray Island (in the Torres Strait). It's this DIY stage you set up in the communities and everybody comes around and you sit down under the stars and there's nothing that you can compare it to."
It is this strong connection with the land and culture which inspires Bangarra, an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisation that is one of Australia's leading performing arts companies, widely acclaimed for its distinctive theatrical voice.
For dancers like Brown, who first joined the group in 2003, giving back to an indigenous community by performing the dances which they inspired, with more contemporary movement, is worth the nerves.
"The scariest audiences for me have always been going back to country, because you are taking their songs and dance and you are taking their style," she says.
"And there is this fear that you bastardised it. It's like, 'I hope we haven't ruined it, I hope we haven't commercialised it'."
But, she says, as soon as the community recognises their work, there is an immediate sense of joy.
"So suddenly there is a definite connection."
Bangarra has worked to nurture these cultural connections with often remote indigenous communities which are the primary inspiration for all of the stories the group brings to life in dance.
"It's lovely to see a company like Bangarra, which goes from the main stages around the country and the world internationally on their tours, to take the time to give back to the communities that they have drawn their inspiration from," says Libby Collins, the group's senior community manager.
This engagement stretches from free community shows to youth programmes, community nights at the Sydney Opera House, and a robust touring schedule around the vast country.
With its "Rekindling" programme, Bangarra brings together high-school students from indigenous backgrounds and community elders to explore their heritage, exchange stories and develop creatively.
- Really magical -
Collins says dance works as a means of connecting young and old because "it is so inherent in our culture".
"It's a way of expressing ourselves. It's a way of telling people where you're from. It's a signature of our cultures individually as well as collectively," she says.
This makes it the ideal vehicle to expose Aboriginal culture to mainstream society as well -- with Bangarra bringing a contemporary twist to an ancient form.
"Because it's such an expression of who we are and the stories that we tell, I think dance is incredibly important as a tool," Collins says.
Bangarra's artistic director Stephen Page says people are endlessly fascinated by indigenous culture and how it has evolved.
And while 25 years might be a long time for a company to survive in modern Western society, it is nothing compared to a culture which is tens of thousands of years old.
"We inherit... such old knowledge. And we are so proud as a contemporary clan to pay honour and pay respect and acknowledge that, and if we can keep drawing and being inspired I am sure we can last another 25 years," says Page.
Dancers like Brown still feel that inspiration and pride, even when the Outback dirt hurts her feet, which are more attuned to modern stages.
"But I don't care. I want to do this because I want to be this connected," she says. "It's really magical."

Tuesday, August 4th 2015
Madeleine Coorey

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