IN THE BEGINNING, two sisters journeyed northward in what's called the "top end" of Australia. They made camp in the bush, and when the great thunderous rains came -- threatening a flood of biblical proportions -- they sang songs and danced dances to appease the unseen forces.
This creation myth, handed down for uncountable generations, remains part of the Dreamtime, the Aboriginal way of accounting for the genesis of the land and its inhabitants. The Dreamtime has nothing to do with sleep and everything to do with living memories that shape the physical, spiritual and moral world of Australian Aborigines. In the vast and intricate Aboriginal culture, the Dreamtime myths give voice to the natural cosmology, the sacred poetry of the land and its life-giving forces.
In the expansive Northern Territory of Australia, the Dreamtime remains, if not a way of life, then a belief system. Friday at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, "Bush" -- an evening of dance, song and theater -- unveils a handful of the central Dreamtime tales culled from Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. But "Bush" isn't merely a compilation of ritual and story: It's a re-conception of the ancient through the unjaundiced contemporary eyes of Bangarra Dance Theatre.
The name Bangarra itself has mythical connotations, meaning "to make fire" in Wiradjuri. The 13 performers return regularly to their Aboriginal ancestral homelands as well as train intensively in modern dance and ballet, said Stephen Page, artistic director and co-choreographer of "Bush." Bangarra draws together the best of disparate worlds: the ancient and the modern, the rural and the urban, the mythical and the theatrical. Page likens it to a fusion of urban and traditional arts, and the distinctive look -- animalistic or even prehistoric with a plasticity and unchecked physical approach -- has become his company's acclaimed signature.
For "Bush," Page and his dancers returned to the land to draw inspiration and reconnect ceremonially and spiritually with their elders. The songs and stories, dances and music are rooted in 40,000 years of Aboriginal tradition, according to Page, so nothing -- not a movement, a rhyme or story -- is taken without permission.
"One of our creative priorities was that cultural policymaking protocols were put in place," Page explained. "When we are working with traditional songs and dances and working with elders from the north, it's just custom to and respect to follow protocol. So certain songs are passed on to the company through really personal relationships."
Yet, Bangarra doesn't reproduce ceremonial dances as museum pieces. Page constantly asks, "How do we transform that tradition, maintain the integrity and move it into the contemporary mainstream arena?"
In "Bush," as in the Dreamtime, the woman serves as the ancestral centerpiece of creation. Kathy Balngayngu Marika, a senior clanswoman from a prominent family in Arnhem, is making her first appearance on a concert stage as a guest performer in "Bush," where she plays the earth mother for the myths that unfold in 10 vignettes.
Men appear to dominate in the dances of "Bush." Page explained that traditionally women dance behind the men, and although women may perform the same movement, it's frequently smaller, subtler. "It's like they're the shield serving the spirit of what [the men] are dancing in the foreground. The women are like the protectors to this male energy that is allowed to be quite irresponsible and out of control, quite dynamic and expressive and explosive." In the end, the women, more restricted and repetitious, draw the men back to earth.
"If the country were to have a sex, it would be female," Page explained. "We believe it's mother earth, the women, who culturally dominate. They're the caretakers of the human order and its culture."
BUSH -- Performed by Bangarra Dance Theatre, Friday and Saturday at 8 at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. 202-467-4600.