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BANGARRA DANCE THEATRE present MATHINNA; A Girl’s Journey Between Two Cultures. At the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House.

Stephen Page, the Artistic Director and Choreographer of this Dance/Drama talks of being “Inspired by a young girl’s journey between two cultures, Mathinna traces the history of a young Aboriginal girl removed from her traditional life, adopted into western colonial society to be ultimately returned to the fragments of her original heritage. Mathinna became the archetype of the “stolen child”. The original idea sprang from the viewing of Mathinna’s portrait by Thomas Bock painted in the nineteenth century. It is in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart. It is an affecting painting. It and other sketches of the Indigenous people of Tasmania.

Unfortunately the dramaturgical construct of this piece is much too familiar and although it is a story that needs to be honoured and remembered it covers ground that we have often seen. The structural form is too predictable and lacks a rigorous point of view, it tells us nothing new, it does not add to our knowledge of the experience. There is no “Drama” to the piece either in its familiar subject matter or “How” it is told to us. It is cliché in its dramatic narrative.

What is powerful are most of the other elements. The Dancers are remarkable for their focused discipline and skill. The Choreography is fully embodied right down to the last nerve ending and the passion of the commitment is totally commanding and captivating. The Dance element is securely maintained and the belief, the acting, of the drama in the many different roles that the company portray is very much owned. Whether it be the Tribal figures and Spirits or the Western Antagonists, whether it be as individuals or chorus there was always maintained a veracity of clear, believed story telling. Energized ,disciplined physicalities and alert imaginations.

The principal role of Mathinna is beautifully acted by Elma Kris and her dancing responsibility delicate and moving in its simple execution. Yolande Brown is outstanding in her tasks. But it is the dramatic focus ,and beautiful movement of Patrick Thaiday that captured my attention. There is a presence that is dynamic in its power and insists that you pay attention. A theatrical charisma burns from his eyes and is electrically connected through every muscle and sinew in his dance. The tension in the claws/fingers of the first spirit-lizard to the ghostly apparition spirit in the class room on, above and about the school chair-desk, to the last suspension from the bar and rope startling!!

The Design by Peter England is stunningly appropriate and beautiful. From the first light isolated river stone through to the tangled mass of tree branches “representing the original tribal “nest””, (here the simple choreographed images of tribal activities of spear construction/preparation etc wholly satisfying in their conceived economy) through to the foreign world of the Governor’s family with “its exaggerated scale of oversized black furniture etched with childlike chalk or blackboard scrawlings.” To the final dreadful images of the raped, pillaged, bewildered and deserted Mathinna magnified by large jars of partly filled clear liquids. Real beauty enhanced and expanded in affect by a very expert Lighting Design by Damian Cooper. Illuminative brillance. The Costume Design and Make up by Jennifer Irwin an intrinsic treasure in the mosaic of the visual impact of the piece.

The original score by David Page is disappointing; is over blown. The wind, sea, rocks; the created real sound is where the score works best. It is too overloaded with “electronic synthesised instrumentation.” It needs to be simplified, brought back to the natural elements of the world that the piece lives in. The sound needs to be thinned, edited down, it is striving for romantic affect and impinges on the experience . It draws attention to itself in its agonised expressions of emotions.

Nigel Jamieson in his notes to Gallipoli talks about Australia not having many collective mythologies other than the indigenous culture. It is tantalising and thrilling to see the BANGARA COMPANY through its Dance/Theatre work presenting it to us. Here is where its possibilities of uniqueness lie. Bravo. Connecting the contemporary audience “to celebrating living traditions at least 40,000 years old……. blending traditional Aboriginal and Torres Islander history and culture with international contemporary dance to create a uniquely Australian dance language” and experience.

There is one more week of this season left. Experience it for the images and the skill and beauty of this work: MATHINNA.

Book online or call 02 9250 7777.