By Rachel Straus
In the beginning - according to the Bangarra Dance Theatre of Australia - there was movement. In "Bush," artistic director Stephen Page and associate director Frances Rings create a dancing earth. During the 90-minute entertainment, which had its American debut Tuesday night, 11 dancers undulated and slithered back in time, telling nine Aboriginal creation stories.
The stories - which involve birth, metamorphosis, and death - originated in the Arnhem Land, the largest aboriginal reservation in Australia and a sacred area to its indigenous people. In the first moments of "Bush," six dancers slid on their knees through a thicket of circular branches, like emerging creatures from the deep. The dance seems to tell an evolutionary tale more like Darwin's than Genesis's.
Throughout "Bush," Kathy Balngayngu Marika, a senior clan member from an Arnhem-Land tribe, hovers over the group from a perch in white body paint like a friendly specter. She stomps the ground with the Bangarra dancers like a grandmother in a gospel church. Compared to the dancers' streamlined bodies and classical dance training, her ungainly steps stand out sharply. Marika and the majority of the Bangarra troupe, however, share cultural ties and can trace their descendants to Aboriginal tribes.
Choreographer Stephen Page - whose reputation for making big dance pieces became internationally recognized after his commission for the Sydney 2000 Games - worked with similarly large ambitions in "Bush." Mr. Page fuses contemporary and ethnic dance, synthesized music and Aboriginal songs, and visions of human mortality with razzle-dazzle lighting effects. "Bush" is a commercial spectacle, an ethnological homage, and an experimental movement study all at once.
In the section "Stick Spirits," a sand-colored man enters the stage with his spine waving as effortlessly as a flag in the wind. He leans against two wooden poles, and his legs twitch and snap as his arms lurch forward in simultaneously fluid and tormented movements. When three more creatures join him, Bangarra lights the Harvey Theater stage with an innovative blaze of physical energy.
Another inspirational force in "Bush" belonged to costume designer Jennifer Irwin. Ms. Irwin, who worked as the costume cutter for "The Matrix," transforms Bangarra dancers into black lizards, with semi-masked faces and textured body suits; into butterflies, with tiger stripes of blue, pink, and yellow; and into visions of early humans, with extensive body paint and plantlike body coverings.
Composers Steve Francis and David Page, who is the brother of the artistic director, create a musical backdrop with a driving pulse and an uneasy mixture of electronica, didjeridoo, and funk. As a score, it brought to mind the musical scene in Luc Besson's "Fifth Element," in which a blue-headed diva sings all the songs of the past and the future in one rousing command performance.
"Bush" ends with a death and a mourning ritual. The program notes explain that the reenactment of these creation stories honors the passing of a tribal member held in the highest esteem. "Bush" was made for Stephen Page's brother Russell, a celebrated company dancer, who committed suicide in 2002. Each time the Bangarra dancers perform "Bush" they ritualize their grief. On Tuesday night they also demonstrated their immense physical gifts to the audience.
© 2004 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC.