The last time I saw aboriginal dance was at McCormick Place, as part of a tourist-industry convention. Surrounded by the vaulting steel and glass of the Behemoth by the Lake and the cardboard and chrome of the tourist bureaus’ booths were several short, brown men in loincloths and chalky body paintings; one played the didgeridoo, and the others pretended to be cranes and other beasts in dances low to the ground and subtle. It seemed this dry and dusty husk was all that was left of Australia’s native culture.

The British suppressed aboriginal dancing and music for decades, and its fairly recent revivals, I discovered, are often showcased in decidedly commercial settings. Bapu National Dance Company seems to be part of this trend: it’s the resident troupe at the new Cultural Theme Park and Aboriginal Education Centre, Ginginderra, at Goldcreek, and the group is said to have performed for government departments, corporate clients, radio, television, schoolchildren, and tourists. Its fate is similar to that of many cultural-preservation groups, often connected with people of color: nurtured in artificial environments often far removed from their places of origin, they pass on their cultural ethos in the form of catchy contemporary slogans (“Save the environment!”).

It’s hard to know whether to applaud or mourn such festivals as the Chicago Cultural Center’s “Original Voices: Languages of the Land,” celebrating the indigenous peoples of many countries through November. But if you’re interested, go quick: these cultural expressions, mostly music and dance, may not be around for long. On Friday from 4 to 5:30 in Preston Bradley Hall, an event called “The Corroboree” will include Bapu, the Alyo Children’s Dance Theatre of Chicago, and didgeridoo players. Then Saturday at 2 Bapu, Alyo, and former members of the Beasley School Performing Ensemble will present aboriginal and traditional West African dances in the theater of the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington. All events in the festival are free. Call 312-744-6630 for information.

–Laura Molzahn

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Bapu National Dance Company photo.