Dancers of the wind


Originally published in Tracker Magazine.

Bangarra performs the koki dance from their new contemporary work ‘Belong’ at the Sydney Opera House.‘Belong’ features two performances: ‘ID’ by Stephen page and ‘About’ by Elma Kris. (AFP PHOTO / TORSTEN BLACKWOOD)

NATIONAL: Bangarra’s new offering Belong has already shifted the iconic sails of the Sydney Opera House, and now it is travelling around the country, writes AMY MCQUIRE*.

Island life is often governed by the whim of the winds, the unseen forces that mould the slow days of the Torres Strait.

They are old winds. Winds which have inspired stories that, although told in different tongues, have survived for generations.

Zei is a cold breeze wind, whereas Kuki is cyclonic. Naigai is calm and still while Sagar is the south-east trade winds that guide boats to their destination.

The wind totems can’t be seen, respected Torres Strait Islander dancer and choreographer Elma Kris tells Tracker, but the signs they are there are never ignored.

“You can only see the trees blowing, the waves starting to change, from smooth to rush. We don’t know where the winds are, we just have to tag along (with it).”

“…We use these winds to go on a journey, to travel to island to island, to arrange the best time to travel, when the best time is to go out hunting, and when is the monsoon, or when we have to come to prepare the garden,” Kris says.

The stories of these winds were told to Kris by her parents, stories that were in turn gifted from their old people. And now these winds have shifted the iconic sails of Sydney Opera House, in Kris’ second piece for the Bangarra Dance Theatre.

About, which sits alongside director Stephen Page’s ID in Bangarra’s latest offering Belong, is a spiritual and evocative portrayal of the four winds and their effect on island life.

It is the first work Kris has choreographed since her 2007 debut piece Emeret Lu, which means “very old things”.

“Creating this work was so hard,” Kris says.

“We have to picture how this wind would come in the same direction, and emerge in different ways. The wind doesn’t stop.

“We had to set it out so the next season comes again. Obviously we can see when that happens, with the sky, how it changes, the colour and how nature changes. You have that dryness, then you have greenness, even then roughness, it gets choppy and then its calm like the dead.”

Kris has created visuals of the wind through the lyrical movements of her dancers, their motions changing in each scene, sometimes calm and smooth, while other times sharp and chaotic.

“This is about the character and the mood of the wind that the (dancers) play,” Kris says. “I wanted them to have an experience with the audience, how they would see the wind, you draw attention to the way the dancers move.

“I told the dancers that with this story, because it’s the wind, your body isn’t human. It becomes like the wind.

“Even though your costumes may be so beautiful or elegant, and it looks good on you, it doesn’t just fit you, it should float. It becomes land, sea and sky again…”

Kris is also present in the piece, representing the storyteller who moves through the different winds.

“This represents my mother, the female of the Torres Strait, because that knowledge has been passed down,” Kris says.

Kris worked with a cultural advisor – Peggy Misi – to help tell her story through language. The result is a visually stunning portrayal of an element we only see through its effect on its surroundings.

The other work in Belong – Stephen Page’s ID – brings a modern element to the show, exploring the intricacies of Aboriginal identity through an impressive use of audio and visual effects.

Kris is full of praise for Page’s work, which links several self-contained stories together through the theme of identity.

“It’s fantastic. It’s something really important for myself as a young Indigenous person and how we look at our identity, where we come from, and how we go out into this world now.”

One part of the piece has the dancers moving cathartically with fractions of their Aboriginality etched on their back. Another piece comically depicts school children blackening their faces with vegemite to take a class photo.

The most impacting is a scene showing a death in custody, as guards tragically abuse an Aboriginal prisoner.

It explores the diversity of Aboriginal identity, and the pains felt when Aboriginal people try and justify their heritage to wider Australia.
And while both Page and Kris’ pieces are widely different in their approach to both stories, the key message of both is to stand tall in your culture and identity, Kris says. “It’s about turning around and saying ‘don’t be shame’.

“That’s who we are. We have to be open, and know who we are. This work has made me proud of who I am and I think he’s done a different work. And although it’s a different work (from About), we are going in the same direction”.

• Belong has just wrapped up at the Sydney Opera House. You can see it at the following locations:
Perth, Heath Ledger Theatre , State Theatre Centre of WA 25 – 28 August
Canberra, Canberra Theatre Centre
2 – 3 September
Wollongong, Merrigong Theatre Company, IMB Theatre, IPAC
8 – 10 September
Melbourne, Playhouse Theatre, The Arts Centre
15 – 24 September

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