Bangarra Dance Theatre in Spirit Credit: Vishal Pandey

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Bangarra Dance Theatre of Australia makes its Chicago debut this week at the Harris Theater. Founded in 1989 by American choreographer Carole Johnson and directed since 1991 by Stephen Page, an Australian dancer and choreographer of Nunukul and Munaldjali descent, Bangarra has been lauded for its celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage through a fusion of contemporary dance and Australian First Nations culture.

“Australia was colonized by the British Commonwealth in 1788,” explains Page. “Millions of First Nations people died. Millions survived. The First Nations of Australia are scientifically considered the oldest nations in the world. And dance is a huge part of our kinship system in aboriginal First Nations culture.” The company was sparked by the curriculum at National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association Dance College in Sydney, where students, in addition to training in American and European modern and contemporary dance, are tutored in Aboriginal dance, music, and other traditions from the northern regions of Australia, which did not suffer the overwhelming genocide of the southern regions. “The combination of all these practices became the distinctive language of Bangarra,” says Page. “First Nations would share with themselves, empower, connect, and rekindle across cultures. We employ 18 full-time dancers who are all First Nations, and the majority come from the southern end, where they have been disconnected from their culture. When they come to Bangarra, they get to reconnect.”

Bangarra will present two works at the Harris choreographed by Page, Spirit (2004) and Nyapanyapa (2016). The latter piece is inspired by the bark paintings of Arnhem Land artist Nyapanyapa Yunupingu​, whom Page encountered on multiple occasions when Bangarra toured through Yirrkala, an Indigenous community in Australia’s Northern Territory. The dancers respond to five paintings, including one that represents a water buffalo attack that traumatized Yunupingu decades ago as she was hunting for turtle eggs in a bush apple forest. “Painting for her is a meditative process—a place of reflection, embedded in her life and history. It reminds me of why I started dancing as a young man . . . because it took me to a safe and spiritual place,” Page has said.

Bangarra isn’t “a university, tertiary, academic lecture performance where people have to understand,” says Page. “People just come along—they surrender, they become a three-year-old child and see this distinctive language of old and new that’s celebrated from our landscape. Their spiritual consciousness is awakened because they know it comes from ritual and tradition that is connected to the land and to First Nations clans. We’re the only First Nations company in the world doing what we’re doing. We want to inspire our global First Nations sisters and brothers. Our work is about our thriving resilience of surviving the 270 years of colonization. You spend your whole life decolonizing all that trauma.”  v