Theatre Review: Bangarra’s Wudjang: Not the Past will leave you shaken

Wudjang

Described by Bangarra Director Stephen Page as “narrative dance theatre and contemporary ceremony”, Wudjang: Not the Past follows the journey of a young woman Nananhg (Jess Hitchcock) as she struggles to understand her cultural heritage while existing in a white system.

When ancestral bones are discovered during excavation for a dam, one of the men, her Uncle Bilin (Kirk Page), convinces the workers to let him keep the bones. This is Wudjang (Elma Kris) and, along with her companion spirit, Gurai (Lillian Banks), she teaches Nananhg – and us – about the past through movement, song and connection to earth.

We are taken on an incredible journey of colonisation, confusion, despair, brutality, trauma and rebellion as Wudjang tells her story, and the story of so many. As Nananhg becomes caught up in her acknowledgement of ancestral trauma, but continues to be pulled in a white system, we see the performer literally become entangled in ropes and physically pulled across the stage. It is an intensely powerful visual representation of her internal turmoil and a beautiful example of how dance, theatre and music are intertwined throughout the performance.

Wudjang
Elma Kris and Lillian Banks, Wudjang – Not The Past. Photo: Daniel Boud.

The choreography and sheer skill displayed by the Bangarra dancers is captivating and when combined with the incredible lighting and set design (Nick Schlieper and Jacob Nash respectively) it becomes magnetic. It’s rare to see such an impassioned performance from every single person, where every movement, every word, every look is so driven by empathy and understanding that the weight of it hangs heavy in the air. It’s an overwhelming and disquieting feeling.

While the entire performance is unbelievably strong and moving, the depictions of brutality towards women at the hands of the colonisers is especially heartbreaking. As Tessa Nuku sings the words “We are their daughters; We are their voices; We give them honour; Now”, I couldn’t take me eyes off her and the mesmerising female dancers who sinuously move around her. A performance steeped in emotion, it brought me to tears, and this would not be the last time I cried before the night was over.

Tessa Nuku, Wudjang – Not The Past. Photo: Daniel Boud.

Following on from this arresting scene is “Maren’s Rebellion” where we see Maren (Elanie Crombie) sing of her resilience and survival. So often women’s rage – especially when it’s a woman of colour – is depicted as “crazy” or “dangerous” but Maren’s rage is strong, powerful and a mark of survival. She sings of her rage being like the sea and crushing men who take – it’s a remarkable moment in a performance full of remarkable moments.

Page and co-writer and Dramaturg Alana Valentine, along with composer Steve Francis, have created truly haunting music and lyrics which perfectly encapsulate the tone of the work and the movement. Woven throughout is the Language of Page’s Father’s Country, the Mununjali clan of Yugambeh Country and this additional layer was brought to life by Donna Page, the Language Consultant for Wudjang: Not the Past.

Wudjang
Wudjang – Not The Past. Photo: Daniel Boud.

This is Page’s last performance as Artistic Director of Bangarra and it is a deeply personal and significant one. With both his sister and cousin playing pivotal roles and incorporating the language of his ancestry, perhaps it is for this reason that the production felt so personal for the audience.

Wudjang: Not the Past will reach out and touch you in ways you could never have imagined and with Australia Day just around the corner, it has never been more important for this story to be told and for people to not only listen – but to hear it. This is not the past.

FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Wudjang: Not the Past is playing as part of the Sydney Festival at the Sydney Theatre Company until 12th February. For more information and to book tickets head to the website.

Tour dates
18 – 19 February 2022 | Theatre Royal, Hobart
15 – 18 March 2022
 | Adelaide Festival, Adelaide Festival Centre

Bangarra Dancers: Beau Dean Riley Smith, Rikki Mason, Rika Hamaguchi, Glory Tuohy-Daniell, Baden Hitchcock, Ryan Pearson, Lillian Banks, Bradley Smith, Courtney Radford, Kallum Goolagong, Gusta Mara, Kiarn Doyle, Emily Flannery, Maddison Paluch, Daniel Mateo, Janaya Lamb, Jesse Murray

Reviewer attended on 18 January 2022.

Photo Credit: Daniel Boud

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