Bangarra Dance Theatre: BLAK
Words by Tahnee Robinson
It’s not often that each element of a performance — choreography, lighting, set design, smell — is beautifully executed in its own right. But Bangarra’s latest offering, BLAK, goes beyond that to create a performance both stunning in its attention to detail and deeply confronting as a whole.
Blak is slick and sharp, tightly controlled dance theatre that, despite telling its story through movement and metaphor, completely eschews artifice. There is nothing self-conscious here — and absolutely no apologies as the dancers use their bodies to tell stories of crime, violence, assault and grief. The stage is often dark, but when the dancers look out they’re bold: they’ll look you in the eyes.
The performance is divided into three sections. Choreographed by Daniel Riley McKinley and the male dancers themselves, “Scar” introduces us to gang of young men dressed in street gear. Clad in dark, hooded clothing, their movements evoke a sense of sublimated violence, stalking the stage with fear and aggression as they navigate the difficulties of being young, male and indigenous in urban Australia. The men fall in and pull back from fighting and self-harm in a series of movements that fall somewhere between breakdancing and ballet. These sequences incorporate traditional elements that eloquently convey the opposing forces of modernity and tradition, and the difficult spaces available for young Aboriginal men to occupy and grow into. Different pools of spotlight flicker between dark scenes of conflict. At one point the grinding, synthy soundtrack whoops into the unmistakable cry of police sirens and the group cease fighting, unified instead to flee.
Part two, “Yearning”, is choreographed in collaboration with the female dancers. It’s a change of pace — the movements are less violent, more sinuous — but the atmosphere is no less fraught, largely due to the music. David Page and Paul Mac have outdone themselves; they create a dark, electronic soundscape that incorporates traditional singing, vocal samples and instruments, with elements of trip hop and trap music. A woman answers a call, illuminated by the sodium-lamp glow of a telephone box in the middle of nowhere in the dark of night. The music throbs and jitters; tension escalates in an eerie way that is reminiscent of some of Cliff Martinez’s recent film scores.
Jacob Nash’s set design is poignant in its minimalism. Single props are perfectly chosen to evoke a sense of place: a row of blue plastic chairs, a swinging spot lamp and a corrugated iron roof, glowing green in the dark. Beneath the eerie glow women sit atop milk crates and learn of a granddaughter’s suicide; a smoking tin can on stage wreathes their grief with incense. Their loss smells sweet and spicy and mournful; it lingers.
This beautiful simplicity continues as a small television — the old kind, a CRT with rabbit-ears — appears on stage. Three women writhe on the ground. From the dark, a figure appears carrying a green spotlight; he’s filming them. As they dance in distress, they appear on the TV. We’re watching the film and reality in real-time, but we cannot focus on the domineering figure behind his lamp. The result is simultaneously deeply affecting and extraordinarily hard to articulate — a powerful, confusing motif.
The performance culminates in part three, “Keepers”, which features the full ensemble. The set is breathtaking: blackness lightens to reveal the gloss of wet rocks and light refracts off a stream of fog to create a waterfall. The dancers come together, with nature, to embrace both tradition and the future. This beautiful piece of work gives the performers room to show us the full range of movement, emotion and eroticism in their repertoire. It’s a tribute to love and community that ends a confronting performance on a note of optimism and possibility.
BLAK runs at the QPAC Playhouse until 27 July, 2013.
TAHNEE ROBINSON is a Brisbane-based writer. She was OffStreet Press’s visual arts, film and fashion editor.