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  • Fiona Prior



Bangarra Dance Theatre

I was lucky to catch Bangarra Dance Theatre’s production Bennelong at the beginning of NAIDOC week 2017.

Stephen Page has brought in this latest production with the usual dose of highly thoughtful and political content wrapped around visual beauty; a formula that has become the touchstone of all Bangarra works.

The choreographic approach brings us vignette-style glimpses into aspects of Eora man Woollarawarre Bennelong’s life in (almost) chronological order. We first meet Bennelong as he is born the warrior and the lifestyle he and his tribe led before first contact; we trace the evolution of his story through his meeting with Captain Philip; his assimilation into the first colony population; the trip to England … we experience varied relationships in Bennelong’s life including his tragic rejection of a wife; we are made aware that his skeleton was taken to England for scientific record; and the sadness of his family and spirit ancestors for Bennelong who ended his life alone and isolated. All these glimpses are accompanied by the growing universal dilemma of any human who does not feel at home in either birth culture or adopted culture; who does not feel they belong.

The sets by Jacob Nash are beautiful, symbolic and earthy; costumes by Jennifer Irwin in depicting tribal and colonial characters and the spirits of the earth do not get bogged down in detail but allow us to easily recognise all – regardless of their relationship to life. Red coats, Bennelong’s famous hat, the fluttering, earth-tones robes of the Spirits … all assist in portraying background, history and political and cultural attitudes.

The most frequent portrayal of Woollarawarre Bennelong is by the bearded Beau Dean Riley Smith. Smith conjures a multi-faceted man from youth to death. We meet the earnest warrior; the young man who dons a red coat and hat with childlike joy; the awestruck tourist in London … right through to the isolated man imprisoned in his loneliness on the outskirts of both cultures.

Bennelong by Bangarra Dance Theatre eloquently delivers these shades of complexity, confusion wonder and sadness and allows its audience to grow a little in empathy through the process.

The story of Bennelong is recorded as follows in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

Bennelong (1764?-1813), Aboriginal man, was captured in November 1789 and brought to the settlement at Sydney Cove by order of Governor Arthur Phillip, who hoped to learn from him more of the natives' customs and language. Bennelong took readily to life among the white men, relished their food, acquired a taste for liquor, learned to speak English and became particularly attached to the governor, in whose house he lodged. In May he escaped, and no more was seen of him until September when he was among a large assembly of natives at Manly, one of whom wounded Phillip with a spear. The attack seems to have been the result of a misunderstanding, and Bennelong took no part in it; indeed, he expressed concern and frequently appeared near Sydney Cove to inquire after the governor's health.

The incident was thus the means of re-establishing contact between them and, when assured that he would not be detained, Bennelong began to frequent the settlement with many of his compatriots, who made the Government House yard their headquarters. In 1791 a brick hut, 12 feet sq. (1.1 m²), was built for him on the eastern point of Sydney Cove, now called Bennelong Point.

In December 1792 he sailed with Phillip for England where he was presented to King George III. August 1794 found him on board the Reliance in Plymouth Sound, waiting to return to the colony with Governor John Hunter, but the ship did not sail until early in 1795, and on 25 January Hunter wrote that Bennelong's health was precarious because of cold, homesickness and disappointment at the long delay which had 'much broken his spirit'…. (and Bennelong’s death is recorded) in 1813.

Sydney Opera House

Until 29 July

Canberra Theatre Centre

3 August – 5 August

Queensland Performing Arts Centre

25 August – 2 September

Arts Centre Melbourne

7 September – 16 September

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