“I reckon everyone’s a black fella. They just don’t know it yet.” Bangarra Dance‘s Artistic Director Stephen Page made this seemingly throwaway line in his thankyou speech celebrating the premiere of new production ‘Blak’ . This quip stayed with me as I thought back over the performance I review for you today.

Despite being aware of Bangarra Dance as a prestigious institution, I had never attended any of their shows prior to the premiere of ‘Blak’. Prior to seeing a show or movie, or reading a novel – I never read the blurb or find out too much. I’d prefer to experience the work in real time, without being influenced by anyone else’s ideas, criticism or interpretation – there’s always time for that later. All I knew of Bangarra Dance was that my colleagues and friends were excited about the performance on my behalf – telling me how wonderful it would be, how special. ‘Blak’ was both of these things, in addition to being a disquieting and uncomfortable piece that encouraged thought on identity, inclusion and exclusion.

Contemporary dance at its best is an intense kind of free association. Being without words to anchor or inform, you’re left to wander your own psychic minefield. When it comes to free association considering the contemporary indigenous Australian perspective, I found myself returning to stereotypes. Were the cheap plastic seats that dishevelled looking dancers slumped upon in one scene a scene from Centrelink, or the broken public health system in Collingwood? The prop of a ringing public phone, backlit with old-skool Telecom orange made me think of broken down communities in backgrounds with endless horizons, red dirt and an edge of violence. I immediately began to feel suspect about these associations of mine. How free were they, really?

‘Blak’ is sensitive and atavistic, fusing scenes from what appears to be a contemporary tribal experience with an ancient, spiritual one. A dizzyling cool dance led by the troupe of female performers is enhanced by cool blue lighting, the sound of water dripping into a calm grotto, the women twisting in time like condensation dripping down the walls. These water nymphs were in stark contrast to another vignette – a woman sitting on a milk crate under a green corrugated-iron roof with wild hair. Sister-dancers in contemporary outfits come to wheedle and woo her into a new world – is she torn between the future she is being drawn towards and the poverty of the life she associates with the face of her tradition? A series of finale pieces merge both male and female troupes in a very beautiful sensual celebration piece. Paint, sand, lost worlds and traditional knowledge – all these themes came clearly to me from the choreography and simply yet powerful props utilised.

Music for Blak was created by Paul Mac, better known for his dancefloor filling tunes. His soundscape merged drum and bass, indigenous language looped into patterns and rhythms of its own, and noises from the natural world. Lighting and stage design came to the fore in a piece that involved a ‘diver’ exploring the hidden depths of illness and torment, shining a single  jaundiced light on dancers as they shunned his gaze. This was particularly confronting, being replayed simultaneously on a small screen facing the audience. Questions of viewer and viewed and how we ‘see’ people (through a prism or in actuality) come to mind – particularly in an age with ‘reality TV’ a nightly festish for many.

Maybe my interpretation of ‘Blak’ is intolerant or informed by years of  indigenous stereotyping. If so – that is unintentional. I look forward to future Bangarra Dance productions, and hope that after I see more of their work – motifs and messages may become clearer to my ‘free’ associating mind.

Maybe – as Page notes – I too am a black fella. I just don’t know it yet.