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'Blak' by Bangarra Dance Theatre at QPAC

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by John Andrew (subscribe)
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Perceptive, moving, visually magical

Blak is Banagarra Dance's latest work to play at QPAC's Playhouse. It investigates the themes of manhood and womanhood and explores the gender-specific challenges faced in the past and the present by Indigenous Australians. With such a broad theme, one might be concerned that the performers would be unable to explore it thoroughly within the tight 75 minute run time. However, Bangarra have succeeded mightily on every level imaginable.

The show itself is broken into three segments. The first is titled Scar and is performed exclusively by the male contingency of the company. It pays particular attention to the idea of portraying a boy's initiation into manhood in a contemporary environment and how this differs from the traditional coming of age ceremony. The palette of colours used by lighting designer, Matt Cox and set designer, Jacob Nash were honest, masculine and showed respect for both past and present. The phallic object hovering behind the men during the entire segment appeared to resemble a hunting boomerang of some kind and enhanced the overall sense of testosterone-filled power. The dancing was percussive, competitive and often violent. This was particularly embodied by a graphic solo danced by Waangenga Blanco with a machete in his mouth.

The second segment, Yearning, focused on the many trials and tribulations faced by young modern Indigenous women. This section included stories of birth, death and everything in between. Native Tongue was a particularly strong piece. It expressed frustration with the rules imposed upon women about learning language and how it can help a person on the constant journey towards self identification. The technical dancing was beautiful and rather than being inaccessibly abstract, the piece demonstrated qualities of sublime literalism through movement. Luke Ede's costuming all the way through Yearning was simple, yet perfectly complimentary to the overall intent.

The third and final segment, Keepers, brought both genders together in a very physical array of virtuosity. It pays homage to the ancestral heritage of the current generation of Indigenous Australians. Keepers truly represented Steven Page at his choreographic best. The piece was visually enthralling and was a perfect finale to a brilliant show.

A standout dancer in the performance was Kaine Sultan-Babij. It is rare for such a tall male dancer to demonstrate strength in physicality without looking uncoordinated. His talent requires a rethinking of the words fluid and percussive as mutually exclusive terms to describe qualities of movement because Kaine Sultan-Babij is able to embody both aesthetics simultaneously.

Background research suggests that over the past decade Bangarra has faced criticism for their material not always being easily accessible to non-Indigenous audiences. Nothing could be further from the case with Blak. The material is as inclusive as any other contemporary dance with no part of the performance leaving the audience feeling ostracised. The issues faced by First Nations Peoples are often more universal than might be understood and Bangarra do a stunning job of demonstrating these from an Indigenous perspective. Definitely worth going along to see!
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Why? For empathy and awe
When: 17-27th July
Where: QPAC
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