A young lieutenant from the First Fleet that landed in Australia in the late 18th century made friends with a 15-year-old girl from the local Eora people. The girl was called Patyegarang, the lieutenant was William Dawes. She taught him her language, and he recorded it in a series of notebooks so that her culture wouldn’t be lost. The notebooks were only rediscovered in 1972 in a British library.
This true story of first contact has become the inspiration for a show touring Australia, put on by the country’s leading indigenous dance company, Bangarra. “Patyegarang” is a portrayal of love and illumination in an era marked by bloodshed and pain.
But when Bangarra’s artistic director Stephen Page contemplated retelling the story to mark the company’s 25th year, he worried it might be too upbeat.
“We know there was a huge massacre and that smallpox wiped out hundreds of [aboriginal] people,” Mr. Page said in an interview at Bangarra’s headquarters, near Sydney Harbour Bridge. “And I thought, ‘You know what, I think it is OK to be positive and optimistic.’ We’re thriving in the 21st century.”
Still, many aboriginal communities, particularly in remote rural areas, are impoverished and sidelined from mainstream Australian culture. But recognition of indigenous talent is growing in the arts, sports and business, Mr. Page said, adding that storytelling is a great medicine and support mechanism.
“Indigenous storytelling is really a good healer,” he said.
Bangarra, which means “to make fire,” was founded in 1989 by African-American activist and dancer Carole Johnson.
The company employs around 45 staff, including 14 dancers, and more than 70% are of indigenous Australian descent. “Patyegarang” is only the fourth time in Bangarra’s history that a non-indigenous dancer— Thomas Greenfield, in the role of Dawes—has performed with the company.
Mr. Page, a descendent of a tribe in southeast Queensland, has been Bangarra’s artistic director since 1991. His work has made him one of Australia’s most high-profile Aborigines. In addition to taking Bangarra on national and international tours, he choreographed parts of the opening and closing ceremonies at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
But his work isn’t universally praised. Some critics have described Bangarra’s liberal use of traditional indigenous dance spiced up with modern moves as a Disneyfication of aboriginal culture.
“You have black urban peers who probably think we sell out. But they probably don’t know about our education program and the workshops we do,” Mr. Page said. “Then you have people who think the shows are a romanticized version of our traditions. But that is OK. I think it is what an audience wants.”
Mr. Page said he is careful not to use dances considered sacred to indigenous communities. He also said he consults with aboriginal elders before putting on a show. “I never do works unless it’s a project that an elder wants to tell.”
In “Patyegarang,” traditional elements, such as a pelican dance, are mixed with modern music composed by the artistic director’s brother, David Page. In one scene, a man and a woman—painted chalky white and jet black, respectively—stand on crates in the middle of the stage. The characters of Dawes and Patyegarang stand behind, wiping the pigment off the man and woman. Slowly, their true indigenous skin colors emerge.
Mr. Page said this is a reference to a conversation recorded in Dawes’s notebook. He told Patyegarang that she would become white if she kept washing herself, but the girl said that would never happen.
Ultimately, the story preaches acceptance, Mr. Page said
Photograph: Bangarra Dance Theatre, Patyegarang. Credit: Jess Bialek