June 28, 2018


The mesmerising ‘Dark Emu’

By Steve Dow
Image from Bangarra Dance Theatre’s ‘Dark Emu’

Daniel Riley, Tyrel Dulvarie, Rika Hamaguchi and Yolanda Lowatta in Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Dark Emu. Photo by Daniel Boud

Bangarra’s latest production explores Aboriginal Australians’ sophisticated farming practices

The great lie of the legal doctrine of terra nullius held that Australia was nobody’s land prior to European invasion. To excuse the denial of at least 65,000 continuous years of human existence on this continent, Indigenous Australians were dismissed as primitive hunter-gatherers.

Aboriginal people in fact possessed sophisticated farming, fishing and land management skills, as would be noted in the journals of explorers such as Charles Sturt and Thomas Mitchell, who observed Indigenous Australians harvesting grain, storing crops, tilling and terracing the land. The new European arrivals were too busy, however, clearing the native scrub in aid of building a little Britain to bring this valuable information about Aboriginal societies into the national discourse or into school curricula. Instead, imported caches of shotguns and vials of smallpox would help enforce the great Australian project of forgetting who was here first, living on and utilising country.

Approaching its 30th anniversary next year, Bangarra Dance Theatre is an important Australian source of cultural exchange. The Sydney-based company’s groundbreaking combination of traditional Indigenous dance and contemporary choreography has long spoken to this nation’s great need for racial unity and remembrance of things past.

The company’s work explores notions of country and kinship, ideas that can be abstract to non-Indigenous people. It has also presented interpretations of historical narratives, such as the exploits of Governor Lachlan Macquarie, the complexity of Wangal man Woollarawarre Bennelong, or the plausible love affair between a colony’s timekeeper, William Dawes, and a teenage Eora emissary, Patyegarang.

Bangarra’s latest work, Dark Emu, has premiered at the Sydney Opera House (until July 14) ahead of dates in Canberra, Perth, Brisbane and Melbourne. Inspired by Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark Emu, Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident?, the title refers to the emu shape in the sky, representing Baiame, a creator spirit in the Dreaming of several Aboriginal peoples. The grain-feeding emu is also a nod to Aboriginal food production, as are the book and production’s explorations of kangaroo grass and bogong moths as components of Indigenous farming.

Dark Emu is a mesmerising dance work; its creation stories evoke sense memory, enhanced by Steve Francis’s original score of wind and rain, human voices and Peter Hollo’s cello. Jacob Nash’s stunning set designs, lit by Sian James-Holland, offer contrasts of fire, feast, stone rituals, massacre, sea, sky and singing up the land.

Divided into 14 sections, the production leads us to the “spirit of resilience and hope”. The show’s segues are mostly seamless. I was surprised to learn that the production was the work of three choreographers: artistic director Stephen Page and two of the company’s long-term members, Daniel Riley and Yolande Brown. Their unity of purpose makes it difficult to unravel where one choreographer’s direction ends and another’s begins.

You have to pay attention to mark the shifts from one section to the next, but I would argue that the choreographers and dancers are paying credit to the audience’s intelligence by not demarcating each idea too sharply. The dancers’ vigour is as awesome as ever.

My British-born guest, her first time as a Bangarra audience member, was entranced as falling fire ash was depicted as having a fertilisation purpose, giving way to the harvesting of the bogong moth for rich, fatty oils. She commented on the wide age range of the dancers, from their early 20s through mid-40s.

We spied Malcolm and Lucy Turnbull in the audience and wondered what, if anything, the prime minister who had so quickly dismissed the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the proposal for a Makarrata commission as “not desirable” would have taken away from the performance. At the reception after the show, there was talk among the artists and guests about what this sort of event can offer, beyond the realpolitik of the neoliberal day.


Dark Emu will run in Sydney until July 14, before touring Canberra (July 26–28), Perth (August 2–5), Brisbane (24 August – 1 September) and Melbourne (6–15 September).

Steve Dow

Steve Dow is the 2020 Walkley arts journalism award recipient.


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