There have been two moments in the AFL that have illuminated the fractious state of race relations in our country, and they are both incidents centring on the male Aboriginal body and the responses of non-Indigenous Australians to that body. The first occurred in 1993, when St Kilda footballer Nicky Winmar faced down an obnoxious and racist opposition cheer squad by raising his footy jumper and proudly pointing to his skin. The second was last year when, after kicking a goal, Sydney Swans player Adam Goodes performed a celebratory warrior dance that resulted in a frenzied controversy that again exposed the fault lines of racism in this country.
I imagine that Stephen Page, the artistic director of the Bangarra Dance Theatre, is well aware of the layers of history and conflict that have enshrined both those moments into the iconography of Australia’s cultural memory. During 20 years of stewardship of Bangarra, Page has been instrumental in creating a body of work that honours the multicultural traditions of Indigenous cultures but which also consciously translates ritual and performance into the language of classical and modernist dance. Dance involves a strict training and discipline of the body, as does football, and for viewers of both spectacles there is an undeniable erotic charge to watching these perfected and beautiful bodies moving on stage or across the field. That Australians still seem incapable of articulating our conflicted but undeniable relationship to this eroticism is, I think, an indication of how immature and stunted we still are as a colonialist nation. The infantalisation of the Indigenous body and Indigenous sexuality remains a constant and toxic regression in our art and in our politics. What else explains the moral panic and outrage that often meets an assertion of sexuality by Aboriginal people?
There is a thrilling charge watching Page’s debut directorial feature film, Spear, and in no small way this exhilaration has to do with watching the assertive performances of the dancers on screen. Spear is driven by its choreography and its physicality, telling a largely non-linear story of a youth, Djali, played by Hunter Page-Lochard, who must navigate his passage into adulthood by reconciling his allegiance to his traditional culture with the reality of existing in urban Australia. Initiation is the metaphor that guides and centres the narrative.
Page is too sophisticated an artist to fall back on that exhausted trope that would identify purity with the Dreamtime and all ills with the contemporary. It would be a violation of his own art practice to do so. One of the loveliest scenes in the film is when Djali wants to help an old man, played by Demela Wunungmurra, navigate a forbidding subterranean escalator. The old man is undoubtedly a guide for the youth but in this deliciously choreographed moment of slapstick we also recognise that it is possible for the roles to be exchanged.
The focus in Spear is masculinity. Possibly it is the primacy of dance as its language that also means the film’s sexuality is not simply heterosexual. Watching the ensemble of male dancers, even when they are communicating anger or melancholy, we are always aware of the beauty of their bodies and of the sensuality in their movement. The female dancers, however, are limited by their representation of archetypal maternal and sacred roles, and both conceptually and in the choreography the performers seem constricted. The one exception is in a seemingly random but deeply pleasurable scene when the women and men are performing a mocking dance to “My Boomerang Won’t Come Back”. Page was choreographer for the movie version of Bran Nue Dae, and the scene seems to both be a homage to and an ironic dig at the vaudevillian tradition that was one of the few spaces open to Aboriginal performers in mid-20th-century Australia. The female dancers, freed from the requirement to embody moral and spiritual rectitude, emerge as distinct personalities in this sequence. It feels a crucial misstep that the film shies away from celebrating the sensuality of the female body.
But there is a more serious problem with Spear as a film, and that has to do with Page’s possible limitations as a filmmaker. I have never been convinced of purist arguments that would mark boundaries between the performing arts, and it is clear that some of the most canonical of film directors, such as Orson Welles, Bob Fosse and Ingmar Bergman, have not only worked across cinema and stage but that their films are often indebted as much to their theatrical talents as they are to their filmmaking skills. It is not as much Page’s filmic inexperience that is a problem, but that his cinematic references and knowledge seem restricted. The structure of Spear consciously works on a mythic level, by which I mean it is attempting to anchor the timeless into the contemporary and real. But too often sequences feel like they are inspired by music videos and the images have no potency. There were moments I wished that Page had worked alongside a director such as Tracey Moffatt, who has the ability to make the everyday mythic; I also imagined Ivan Sen at the helm, another director who has an understanding of the epic possibilities of film. Much as the dancers keep exciting us while watching Spear, the filmmaking itself keeps us earthbound.
There is an aspect of the film that does resonate on a mythic level and that is the performance of Aaron Pedersen. He is not a dancer but he has a powerful and lithe body and he performs with astounding physicality. His is the most damaged of the male characters, a man exiled from both his Aboriginal culture and from the urban world, and the nakedness of his rage and grief imbue the character with a tragic force. I have admired Pedersen as an actor for a long time but his performance in Spear is a revelation. It suggests he has the discipline and talent to play a Shakespearean hero but also that he could be astonishing in a role that explored the conflicts and animosities of how we live now. He has excelled in roles where he plays the Australian larrikin but maybe it speaks to the poverty of our cinematic imagination that he has yet to be cast in a dramatic role that would unleash the danger and excitement we see in Spear. It is testament to Page’s instincts as a director of performers that he has cast the actor in this role.
Pedersen’s character is absent from the last part of the film and we keenly feel this loss. Dance and cinema have a long history, with collaborations between choreographers and filmmakers being a core part of the history of experimental film. And, of course, the movie musical is a genre that often made do with the flimsiest of plots to celebrate dance and song. But unlike Wim Wenders’ Pina, for example, Spear doesn’t have a documentary intent to justify its length and the often banal visuals frustrate our experiences as a viewer. Page-Lochard is a lovely looking youth and a superb dancer but he is inexperienced as an actor and his emotional blankness works against our empathy. He can’t carry the symbolic weight of the director’s intentions. It is only in the end, in a graceful dance at the centre of the ensemble, that he truly takes possession of the film. I suspect Spear carries too much story, as if Page could not quite trust that we as an audience could give ourselves over to the enjoyment of pure dance.
Straight after viewing Spear I called up on my phone the video of Goodes’ dancing. What is most joyous in watching the footage is the exuberance of the man celebrating his prowess. He’s as sexy as all fuck and something about his beauty and his strength scared us. Spear acknowledges that which is broken and damaged in Aboriginal manhood, so we can’t just bliss out on the pleasure the dancers take in their art. As the reaction to Goodes’ dance demonstrated, an Aborigine taking pleasure in their body and their abilities can never be “innocent”, can never be outside history. But in celebrating the beauty of the Aboriginal body and affirming a pride in that beauty, Spear offers us a vision of Aboriginal masculinity that is still shockingly rare on our screens. Djali, the child, becomes the man. I think that’s what scares us.