The invasion of what would come to be known as Australia by Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet, while often thought of as a beginning, should instead be thought of as an end, or a rupture with established cycles of time, land and people, to be replaced by the tyranny of linear time. Historians such as Bruce Pasco, author of Dark Emu, have sought to return time and agency to the Indigenous people who populated this continent before European arrival and in doing so, have highlighted complex systems of land management that were destroyed by European settlement. Daniel Riley, dancer and member of Bangarra Dance Theatre, has been part of the choreographic team that have brought these ideas to the stage for a new work, named after Pascoe’s book.
While taking an academic text as a starting point for a piece of dance theatre may seem to lead to a work that is intransigently abstract, Riley described the process of the show’s production as honing in on the essential ideas contained within the text.
“Alana [Valentine] as a dramaturg, she read through [Dark Emu] and in a way she dissected Bruce's text and looked at the stronger, Black ideas in the text and the idea, even if it was a sentence, she'd be reading and go, ‘That. That's what this entire chapter is about, this one sentence.’ So we would look at that, whatever that sentence may be, and then we would deconstruct that.”
Taking these ideas as a starting point, Riley and the choreographic team, along with the broader artistic team separated the work into three acts, with each act structured around an element of the Indigenous land management practices which are the focus of Pascoe’s book.
Instead of following a traditional narrative arc, Riley describes each act as “kind of the unfolding of each idea until you get to an assault and it's cut and you start again.”
Rather than a linear narrative, Dark Emu’s structure involves the progressive deepening into an idea, before a rupture ends each cycle. These acts then form a microcosm of the overall work which, Riley notes “is cyclical in itself. We kind of begin and end where we started but that's not really a place of solidity.”
Riley and Bangarra avoid settling on one interpretation, rather using dance and its focus on movement and form to produce an affective experience for the audience. The audience can instead draw upon the connections between the movements of the dancers themselves and the notions that are being depicted on stage.
“We wanted to look at the deep level of [concepts such as fire, water and animal husbandry] and what the spirit was and the energy of it was and the purpose of it was and trying to connect to that as an Indigenous Australian,” said Riley in reflecting on his own connection to what is depicted. “For me, how do I connect to the ideas and to the spirit and to the practice of fire as it connects to fire as an element?”
The expression of these ideas or feelings comes as much from the experience of being in the theatre as seeing the bodies of the dancers on stage. As Riley highlighted, “The visual medium can be so much more encompassing when you sit in a dark theatre and you have sound and you have visuals and the feelings and the connections that you have as a human to what's happening on stage. That's a real live thing and that's the beauty of live performance as well.”
Key to understanding the findings of Pascoe’s book is the titular emu, which symbolizes the creator spirit Baiame. Rather than being a constellation made from lines drawn between stars, the dark emu represents the spirits which Indigenous Australians see depicted in-between stars. Thus, Pascoe’s book and Bangarra’s interpretation of it go beyond describing land-use practices that took place, but rather invite deeper contemplation of what we choose to see and not see.
As Riley argues, “it's much deeper than just this idea of fences and farming. It's a deeper, it's 60 000 years of connecting to something greater than ourselves and something that was here before all of us.”
Dark Emu premieres 12 months after Bangarra’s previous work Bennelong, in which Riley played Governor Macquarie. Receiving wide critical acclaim as an important story that had not been told on stage before, the play represented the company placing its indelible stamp on live performance in Australia, something that built on years of artistic development, which Riley has been a part of for over a decade.
What keeps Riley with this company for so long is not only the cultural home and family that he has found in Bangarra but how “the way we're telling stories changes every year.”
Under artistic director Stephen Page, Riley has seen the development of the company, “the way that Stephen is telling stories now is different to even when I joined twelve years ago,” and Riley will bring this structural dynamism to his own choreographic work, “through my choreographic work I've learnt to do that and trying to find different ways to tell story and different ways to create movement.”
Not wanting Dark Emu to be seen in direct comparison to Bennelong has encouraged these different ways of story-telling, as Riley notes in avoiding comparing the two productions, “I'm trying not to think ‘Oh it's got to be better than Bennelong.’ It doesn't have to be better than anything because each show we do at Bangarra is its own thing and is as good and as strong as the story for that is.”
As Riley moves more towards choreography the cycle begins again, as his 16-month-old son sits downstairs surrounded and cared for by the Bangarra ensemble.
“As you get older you see things differently. I'm a father now. … It's given me a whole new purpose and that's kind of a silly, wanky thing that you think parents always say, [but] it actually does feel different and being here is super important for me now, now that he's growing up. … I want him to be aware of who he is.”
Dark Emu premieres on June 14 and runs until July 14. Pick up tickets here: https://my.bangarra.com.au/single/psDetail.aspx?psn=714