Bangarra Dance Theatre traces its roots back 40,000 years, to the earliest traditions of Australia's aboriginal peoples. "Bush," the 75-minute work the Sydney-based company performed Friday and Saturday at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, harks back even farther -- to the beginning of time.
From the first stirrings of life to rituals of death and rebirth, "Bush" interpreted aboriginal creation stories in dance and music. But this was more than an anthropology lesson or a theological sermon. "Bush" was a stirring memorial to kin. It was the family of performer Kathy Balngayngu Marika -- a solidly built woman with flowing white hair who presided over the action like an elder goddess -- that gave Artistic Director Stephen Page permission to perform the stories of its Rirratjingu clan in Australia's Arnhem Land, the aboriginal homeland that is closed off to non-aboriginals.
These stories, according to the program notes, are told only as part of the burial rites for an esteemed person. In keeping with this tradition, Page told the audience in a post-performance discussion, he created "Bush" to honor his brother, a Bangarra dancer who died a few years ago.
True to its origins, there was a sense of reverence to "Bush," but there was also playfulness and a striking theatricality. Each of the work's nine sections evoked its own universe, with a different set design, musical score and cast of curious creatures. In one, dancers seemed to be sprouting from the earth, wriggling out of a jumbled mass of roots, squeezing grublike out of what appeared to be the tiniest of apertures. In another, depicting a sacred beast that emerges once a century to impart wisdom, a group of women carrying glowing lanterns hustled around the stage on the trail of a wormlike man who writhed and slithered among them with the slippery grace of a contortionist.
The music, composed by Steve Francis and David Page (another of Stephen's brothers), echoed native rhythms with quickening percussive pulses and raspy vocals, though at times it became overprocessed and generically New Agey. The most truly magical element was set designer Peter England's collection of wall art, hung against inky black backdrops. At one point the stage was capped with an illuminated crosshatch of pickup sticks, at another an airy cloud of feathers. At the end, an amoeba-like etching loomed overhead, a fruitful image of the origin of life and the cycle of time.
The clarity and impact of the set design were not matched in the dancing, however. Without having memorized the descriptions of the nine sections before the lights went out, I found it difficult to follow what was being expressed, and the vignettes began to run together as a parade of odd characters doing inscrutable things. Yet no one can doubt the earnestness of the dancers or the seriousness of purpose that permeates "Bush" and Bangarra. As the director told the audience, most of his dancers are indigenous Australians who came to Bangarra "to rejuvenate their cultural identity" after native languages and customs had been suppressed.
"We're not locking down the culture into some sort of museum art form," said Page, and this is a good thing. Imperfect as it is, "Bush" is a stimulating, rich and textured portrait of spirituality, and spirit.