Content warning: This piece contains the names of Aboriginal people who are deceased.
The first thing that strikes you about Terrain is the lightning: a painful flash, strobe-white and volt-sharp. The black of the theatre instantly transforms into a night desert sky gripped by storm: you can almost smell the desert air, laced with the scent of salt and scrub, pregnant with far-off rain. In that searing split second, five figures are silhouetted on a chalk-white stage as if they have stood there since time immemorial.
It’s a breathtaking introduction, communicating in a single instant the power and vastness of Kati Thanda–Lake Eyre, the inspiration for Terrain. Described as a hymn to Country, the award-winning work was first seen in 2012 as Frances Rings’ first full-length commission for Bangarra Dance Theatre. At the end of this year, Rings will take over from Stephen Page as Bangarra’s artistic director and this 10th-anniversary revival reminds us of her skill as a choreographer and storyteller.
Rings, whose choreography has always struck me as more surreal and serene than Page’s, takes a far-seeing, bird’s-eye view of Kati Thanda in Terrain. Bypassing the detailed social commentary that usually forms an important part of Bangarra’s voice, Rings steps back and invites audiences to survey Kati Thanda through an abstract, spiritual lens. In Rings’ movement language for Terrain, a single vignette or beautifully thought pose can embody an entire story. It is this abstraction that makes Terrain feel fresh, 10 years after its premiere. And, tellingly, it looks just as beautiful with a new generation of Bangarra dancers, suggesting the company’s future is strong.
Rings’ choreography is supported by compelling production design, one of Terrain’s great strengths. The creative team travelled together to Kati Thanda and their unified awe at the landscape is powerfully apparent. Terrain inspired some of the late David Page’s most beautiful music – a shimmering, otherworldly score that captures the chiming vastness of the space. Set designer Jacob Nash similarly breaks away from what he once described as the “black box” of Bangarra’s usual sets, opting for huge, light-filled vistas and jewel tones. Costume designer Jennifer Irwin was also inspired by the cracked saltpan earth to create garments that were textured and sculptural, using a painstaking process of bleaching, stripping and laser-cutting fabrics until they were as raw and abstract as the desert itself.
All of this comes together to form Terrain, choreographed as nine sections or “states of experiencing” the Country of Kati Thanda. The vignettes are swift – the whole performance lasts just over an hour – but each contains haunting imagery that lingers in the mind long after.
The first, Red Brick, is a quintet in which a female dancer (Courtney Radford) is borne aloft by four, in a meditative reflection on the ancestral Calling to Country. Effortlessly suspended by the men, Radford appears to glide through the air in a series of fall and release shapes, as if carried on a current. Rings says this section was inspired by Reginald “Uncle Reg” Dodd, an elder of the Arabunna people of Kati Thanda, who acted as cultural consultant for Terrain. Dodd, she recounts, challenged her to see what Country meant to urban Indigenous people. As a result, Red Brick was created to depict how the call to spiritual belonging and identity is innate to the human heart, a restless longing that can never be suppressed.
Red Brick invites us into the men’s piece, Shields. This is a vibrant dance for a male ensemble, featuring striking bark shields. These take on a life of their own in theatrical choreography – twisted, turned, triumphantly raised, grouped then separated – representing the struggle for land rights and recognition. It’s an exciting piece bursting with energy and athleticism and reminds us that Bangarra has often featured some of the best male dancing in Australia.
The softer Reborn follows, a lyrical ensemble piece danced to the sound of keening strings. Reborn is about passing land through lineage, and opens with one of the most striking images of Terrain – a dancer kneeling centre stage, appearing to pour glittering sand down a beam of light.
Next follows my favourite piece, Spinifex. This section was inspired by the desert trees that Rings spotted in the arid Kati Thanda landscape, which she described as looking like gatherings of spirit women suspended in time, waiting in contorted positions for the waters to transform them. Spinifex is choreographed for a female ensemble. The dancers wear laser-cut skirts that resemble light mottling through desert scrub and are crowned in otherworldly head-dresses of gnarled branches. These dip and bend like twigs in the wind as the dancers duck and weave, grasping their foreheads or shoulders at odd angles and moving on tiptoe with twisting hips and circling lower limbs. It resembles something eerily inhuman, like spindly branches brushing against the ground.
After Spinifex is Salt, named for the “white salt vastness” of Kati Thanda. It begins with a duet, the two dancers clothed as if encrusted in salt crystals, moving with a clean symmetry so that every gesture possesses a refracted, crystalline quality. Salt expands into a gorgeous male solo featuring Ryan Pearson carving space across the stage – he’s exceptionally strong, swift and fluid in some of the night’s best dancing. An Australian Dance Awards nominee for his work in 2019’s Stamping Ground, Pearson is one to watch.
While Bangarra’s work often highlights the devastating impacts of colonisation, Terrain gives it only one dedicated section in Scar. The choreography takes on a disjointed imbalance, featuring an emotionally fraught solo from Lillian Banks. But what leaves a visceral impression are the costumes – ripped strips of black with an oily, gaffer tape-like sheen to them, as if the dancers are clothed in something that had once been alive but is now decomposing. You can almost smell the stench and feel the slime melting from their fingertips.
Landform, which is about the land’s ability to regenerate and heal, brings the dancers together again in the seamless ensemble movement that made Red Brick so strong. The six dancers breathe as one through a series of gorgeously lyrical, organic shapes, showcasing the kinespheric awareness so essential to compelling group dancing.
The final two vignettes, Reflect and Deluge, bring the work full circle and end on a powerful, meditative note on the unstoppable life cycle of Kati Thanda. Reflect depicts the meeting of earth and sky and Deluge observes the beginning of another journey of the water cycle. It is a contemplative end to a beautiful piece. In its meditation on the power and grandeur of Country, Terrain is timeless.
Terrain plays at the Sydney Opera House until June 25 and then tours to Canberra and Queensland.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 18, 2022 as "Mapping the sacred".
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