For the "Awakening" segment at the Olympic Games opening ceremony, choreographer Stephen Page and his Bangarra Dance Theatre performers showed they could stage an epic of David Leanşlike proportions. With hundreds of indigenous dancers swirling across the Olympic Stadium like great clouds of ocher, it was an Aboriginal corroboree crossed with Lawrence of Arabia. Djakapurra Munyarryun, Page's male muse and companion of high-flying M.C. Nikki Webster, certainly had the charisma to match the occasion. But amplifying their talents for a television audience of billions seemed to blur Bangarra's grit and humor.
With their new production Skin-which had its premiere at the Olympic Arts Festival in Sydney and is now in Melbourne before traveling to Brisbane next week-we get Bangarra unplugged. In the flesh, they are among Australia's most sensual performing-arts groups, and in Skin we smell the heady waft of eucalyptus, as gum branches are whipped by dancers on stage; see a pungent shower of desert sand; and hear the plaintive chords of singer-songwriter Archie Roach, who joins the group for the evening.
But Bangarra is foremost about contemporary dance, and Skin brings the group's dynamic fusion of ceremonial and modern moves to a pared-back perfection not seen in previous productions like Ochres and Fish. This is embodied in "Shelter," in which women dancers echo the rhythms of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Then Page's choreography takes flight as the performers ascend a twig raft suspended above the darkened stage. From this chrysalis of minimalist beauty, limbs flutter like butterfly wings and a child is born. With it, Bangarra arrives at a dramatic stillness beyond dance, a rhythmic trance.
Skin might float like a butterfly, but it also stings like a bee. Where Page seemed constrained by the populist necessities of the opening ceremony, here he pulls no punches. And in "Spear," the male performers confront such issues as prison deaths, alcoholism and glue sniffing. In the hands of Page and dramaturg John Harding, Skin has a lighter feel than recent indigenous works like the play Stolen. Leavened by larrikin humor ("What do you call a blackfella that's got dandruff?" jokes one performer. "A lamington."), it transcends polemics by the sheer beauty of its stagecraft. When a dancer emerges from the wreck of an upturned car, ducking and weaving like a genie, it is Bangarra at its sinewy, slithery best.
"They just expect the blacks to come up with the magic," quipped Page at Skin's opening night at the Sydney Opera House last month. In an Olympic Arts Festival of often overblown imports and inflated egos, Skin stood out with its modesty, message-and, yes, magic. As Djakapurra Munyarryun "sang" his fellow performers back on stage for the finale, the Opera House became a campsite in which the audience gathered comfortably around the fire. In its intimate glow, contemporary dance found the intensity of primal theater.