The Last Wave

Australian company returns to BAM with its unique cultural twist

Stephen Page is Australian but his story reads like the American dream.

Born into a working class family of 12, he grew up to be the artistic director of a world famous dance company and, this year, Australia’s biennial arts festival, both of which have flourished under his direction. But he is humble about his rags to riches success.

“We always had music and storytelling in the family,” he said in a recent interview. “Everyone was singing and there was always music. I was always loving the arts.

But,” he added, “We couldn’t afford modern or ballet classes. Then at 16 or 17, I went to dance college [the Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre] and the rest is history.”

The same year Page started formal dance, he went on a rural tour where he connected with Aboriginal elders.

“From then on,” he said, “ I knew that cultural expression was really interesting to me.”

After graduation, Page joined the Sydney Dance Company, even though he had no formal training. Then, in 1991, two years after it was formed, Bangarra Dance Theatre invited him to be artistic director. Created with the goal of blending traditional Aboriginal culture with contemporary dance to address social issues, Page offered just the right experience to help achieve that goal.

Stephen Page is part of a new generation of artists who are embracing the richness of their cultural heritage with integrity, while placing it in a Western context. The ones who are succeeding, he suggested, are those “who have knowledge about presenting it in a modern theater.” Like Cloud Gate Theater, which blends martial arts, tai chi and Martha Graham technique, and Akram Khan who mixes Kathak with contemporary dance, Page draws inspiration from his ancestry and makes it relevant to present day life.

“There has always been presentation of folk, ethnic and traditional dance,” said Page. “But in the last ten years it has been stylized in a way that allows it to be accepted on a sophisticated level.”

“Bush” is inspired by tradition “Dreamtime” stories of creation from the Arnhem Land region of Australia, and reflects the poetic beauty of the land as experienced by Page. Arnhem Land is in the nation’s tropical far north, where Page’s “traditional mothers” or “amala” come from. One of these mentor/mothers—Kathy Balngayngu Marika—performs in the work as a kind of spiritual guide, a case of art imitating life. Unfolding in some 14 sequences that depict cycles, ceremonies and creatures both familiar and curious, the work is beautiful and mysterious, haunting and inviting.

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