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Spirit, by Australia’s Bangarra Dance Theatre, is a rich theatrical experience that makes the cultural history of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people very present and tangible.

Bangarra Dance Theatre /Handout

  • Spirit
  • Bangarra Dance Theatre
  • Choreography by Stephen Page and Bernadette Walong-Sene, traditional choreography and music by Djakapurra Munyarryun, music by David Page and Steve Francis

It’s a feast of sound and vision – and scent, too, from burning sticks, wafting from the stage into the auditorium. Spirit, by Australia’s Bangarra Dance Theatre, is a rich theatrical experience that makes the cultural history of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people very present and tangible. The 70-minute show, made up of nine vignettes taken from the company’s repertoire, launched a Canadian tour at the Vancouver Playhouse on Friday.

Bangarra – which means “to make fire” in the Wiradjuri language – grounds its work in culture that goes back 65,000 years. Yet, embodied by the company’s 17 dancers – all of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent – there is a relevant contemporary flavour to the evening. As with much dance today, the dancers’ skill set is broadly based: You glimpse occasional hip-hop rhythms in their moves or the fluid grace of ballet. These and other forms provided additional, often subtle, textures to the traditional Indigenous choreography that is the main storytelling element.

The traditional movement tends to be grounded, with the dancers spinning low or rolling on the ground as if it were soft earth. Animals are evoked, as in a section from Ochres – a 1994 work that put Bangarra on the map for its insights into Indigenous culture (it is now a resident company at Sydney Opera House). Six bare-chested men in black pants stalk the stage with feline grace, their hands curled round like paws.

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The traditional movement tends to be grounded, with the dancers spinning low or rolling on the ground as if it were soft earth.

Zan Wimberley/Handout

The music is similarly built from traditional and contemporary elements, including Aboriginal languages, didgeridoo, strings, electronica and nature sounds.

A projected subtitle near the start notes “the scars of colonization and dispossession,” but “our Ceremonies heal and cleanse our spirits.” The performance itself was one such ceremony, performed with inner commitment and no obvious playing to the audience. This made it easy to fall into the dreamy other world atmosphere onstage, especially in Brolga, from Corroboree (2001), which opened. Bangarra’s long-time artistic director Stephen Page (descended from the Nunukul people and Munaldjali clan) described the excerpt as “our First Nations Swan Lake” in the pre-show talk.

A brolga is a type of crane, and the story follows a similar human-into-creature transformation. The staging features clouds of white dust and lots of white feathers, a gorgeous, bird-like duet, a towering backdrop revealing a cross-section of earth and the calm presence of Elma Kris, a 20-year company veteran. In her more ceremonial role, Kris seemed to directly channel the Indigenous spirit at the heart of Bangarra.

One caveat is over Spirit’s episodic “best moments” format: next time, I’d love to be able to dig deep into one full-length work.

Bangarra tours to Montreal’s Place des Arts, Oct. 30 to Nov. 2; Brantford’s Sanderson Centre for the Performing Arts, Nov. 6; Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, Nov. 8 to 9; and Ottawa’s National Arts Centre, Nov. 15 to 16, with a cultural residency at Six Nations in Ontario Nov. 12 to 13.

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