July 2014

Arts & Letters

First contact

By Steve Dow

Jasmin Sheppard as Patyegarang. Photo by Greg Barrett, courtesy of Bangarra Dance Theatre

The secret history of Bangarra Dance Theatre’s ‘Patyegarang’

In rehearsal for Bangarra Dance Theatre’s latest production (touring nationally until 6 September), the indigenous dancer Jasmin Sheppard climbs a makeshift hill, and for the first time her character, the eponymous Patyegarang, sees the engineer and astronomer Lieutenant William Dawes. They dance around each other, but his movements lack the finer fluidity of hers. The non-indigenous dancer Thomas Gundry Greenfield, tall and built like a front-row forward, looks nothing like the delicate, clean-shaven dandy speculatively depicted in a 19th-century miniature.

Of Patyegarang there is no known picture. Patye, as Dawes often called her, was one of as many as 20 indigenous people the First Fleet marine met in his four years at Sydney Cove. Although she spent just a few months teaching the loner Englishman words and phrases from her language, her impact on his understanding of indigenous culture and spirituality – and her impact on the historical record – was profound.

In his 2012 book on Dawes, 26 Views of the Starburst World, Ross Gibson writes that Patyegarang’s clan may have been Sydney’s northern Cammeraygal people, who came to dwell at the southern harbour shore in late 1790. Evidence of her relationship with Dawes is found in the second of two slim notebooks he kept while running a short-lived one-man observatory where the southern pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge stand now, 200 metres from this Bangarra rehearsal space on Pier 4 at Walsh Bay.

In character, Greenfield tries to catch Sheppard. She slides under his legs. The disparity in the principal dancers’ height and body volume will be useful stage shorthand to denote age difference: William Dawes was 28 when the two met; Patyegarang, say historians, was about 15. Soon, six men appear; they dance with boomerangs behind their heads, twisting and turning. In turn, each man lifts and stamps one foot, then the other. Shots are fired. Blackfella and whitefella bodies move between life and lifelessness.

This abstract and stylised dance collapses time, folding the meeting of the English officer and the smart young Eora emissary into the violence that grew after the insubordinate Dawes was shipped back to London in December 1791. Before he met Patyegarang, Dawes had already noted the term “the Eora”, a collective self-description that simply means “the people”. It is used by the indigenous people of the Sydney basin, such as the Cadigal, Wanegal and Cammeraygal clans, which are linked by language, kinship and customs. Sydney’s inland indigenous clans are also often broadly referred to as the Darug people or nation and the coastal clans as the Eora nation, although those names do get used synonymously. What these first Australians called the Sydney language is not recorded, but it is widely known by various spellings of the word “Dharuk”.

At first, Stephen Page, Bangarra’s artistic director for 23 of the company’s 25 years, wanted the focus of this new show to be on the well-known Dawes, for whom the harbourside suburb of Dawes Point was named. But he overcame marketing reservations to name the show after Patyegarang, who had been absent from the record until Dawes’s notebooks were discovered in London in 1972.

Among the many words and expressions that Patyegarang taught Dawes in her language were “to undress”, “to embrace”, “to court, to make love to” and “to warm one’s hand by the fire and then to squeeze gently the fingers of another person”. On page 34 of Dawes’s second notebook, he records Patyegarang saying, “Nyimun candle Mr D.” Put out the candle, Mr D, Dawes translates. Two pages on, he writes “Kandulin” for “candle”.

Page is pondering: during the dance called ‘Intimacy’, for which a humpy has been built, how intimate should his principal dancers be? No one knows for sure if sex was involved, but it seems plausible. Dawes writes of observing Patye standing by the fire naked, and translates her saying: “The fire is felt better without clothes than if it had to penetrate thro’ them.”

Patyegarang also showed Dawes the indigenous spiritual concept of country

Page, wearing a blue singlet over a red top with a skivvy tied around his waist, his feet bare, laughs at the quote. “At that time, writing something like that might have been considered soft porn, you know what I mean? The evolution of what we think sensuality and sexuality is means it was a completely different world to today … I think he would have been quite spiritual as a person; if she had been naked, it wouldn’t have bothered him.”

Page is aware of conjecture about Dawes’s character in Ross Gibson’s engaging book. Gibson proposes that Dawes was a man who disdained authority and was baffled by social niceties but also had an obvious playfulness and a willingness to learn from the Eora. He soon discovered that his European nominalist mindset – that the relationship between words and things is fixed – didn’t apply to the indigenous people’s language, and that names and meanings changed according to added suffixes, vocal tricks of the larynx, the environment in which something was said or how many people were listening.

Patyegarang also showed Dawes the indigenous spiritual concept of country. Dawes railed against Governor Arthur Phillip’s command that he join a hunting expedition to kill Eora, says Gibson, probably because Patyegarang had taught him he would in a sense be killing himself. Through language, Dawes learnt, as Page says, “the land kinship, the sky kinship, the creative kinship, huntings and trackings; the way that land shapes the people, [that] people are country. Universally, indigenous people all have that same metaphor with kinship and land.”

In a nearby soundproof room, one of Page’s older brothers, David, is still composing the music for Patyegarang. There were 12 Page siblings growing up south of Brisbane, putting on shows in their backyard.

Brotherly love is evident when David and Stephen hug after having been apart for a day, and David likes that the dance studio is next door. “I can just go in and lie down there and talk stupid to the dancers. Stephen says, ‘Don’t interrupt my rehearsals; get your black arse out of here.’” David guffaws. “I say, ‘Yes, boss; don’t whip me, massa!’”

For the Patyegarang soundtrack, David has pre-recorded Jasmin Sheppard speaking sparse Dharuk language phrases scripted by indigenous man Richard Green, and the bare-bones story and the dancing have inspired an abstract, bass-heavy and often rhythmic score of grand piano, electric keyboards, harp and contemporary drums. Traditional song, surprisingly, is lacking. The “emotion” came largely from listening to Stephen’s take on the story, but the dance is the main ingredient, says David. “I always say the body is the lyric; it’s the melody.”

David says Patyegarang was showing Dawes “humanity, that we’re all the same and part of something bigger”, but he loves Ross Gibson’s suggestion she may have also been an Eora spy sent to elicit information. There was evidence in the diaries, says David, that Patyegarang’s father was annoyed she had taught Dawes too much, including sacred song.

David likes to compose at odd hours, when he’s not interrupted and can feel Patyegarang’s spirit. “Sometimes I’m here really early in the morning, about 4 am, or else working until 1 or 2 am. If something’s not working, it’s like, OK, she tells me it’s not right.”

David feels the spirit, too, of the youngest Page sibling, Russell. The enormously talented dancer, who suffered from depression, committed suicide in 2002, aged 34. “Everywhere I go [to live], I set up my little shrine for Russell,” David says.

 “I’ve got these beautiful photos of him dancing and I’ve got them in these gorgeous frames. He’s always here. He used to come into this [recording] studio when he was supposed to be in fuckin’ rehearsals. He’d sneak out and come in here. There was nothing but a drum kit and pianos and he’d whisper, ‘Turn the light off,’ and with it all being soundproofed he could practise his drumming, and I’d be in the control room and Stephen would come in and say, ‘Have you seen Russell?’ I’d go, ‘No.’”

Meanwhile, Bangarra’s artistic director is 49. Does Stephen Page have a succession plan? It’s his turn to laugh.

“Everyone asks me that, every year. I’ll be 100 before I jump off, and I’m 50 next year, so I’m only halfway. If I don’t live to 100, that’s OK. I think the spirit and the legacy left here is enough to continue the growth of this company.

 “The great thing today is we have four or five choreographic storytellers that were birthed out of here. We’ve got a strong education program. About 120 dancers have passed through here. Many of those dancers have gone back to their communities and started their own little satellite of Bangarra essence, whatever that may be.”

Up the road at Dawes Point, peak-hour trains trundle over the Harbour Bridge. A plaque on the grass and concrete verge beneath the bridge commemorates the humble observatory that once stood there.

The observatory fell into disuse in late 1791. Back in London, Dawes went on to join the Clapham Sect, an Anglican group agitating to abolish slavery. Soon after, he became governor of Sierra Leone, then a colony home for freed slaves.

Steve Dow

Steve Dow is the 2020 Walkley arts journalism award recipient.


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