Stephen Page has known acclaim and accolades as head of Bangarra Dance Theatre. Off stage he’s had more than his fair share of personal tragedy. Here, he talks to about family, his latest show, Dark Emu, and the power of language to change Australia. “Through this symbolism of visual art and story, under that came this kinship idea of connection to land, people and story. That’s why lore and customs exist.”By Steve Dow.
Bangarra’s Stephen Page on the language of dance
His mother called it “whispering language”. She would whisper the words of their freshwater people to her children at night, because it was part of a forbidden culture. When the welfare people came, she hid these children beneath a stockman’s house. Storytelling would be the family gift passed on to these kids, and Roy Page, the youngest of eight, told tales that inspired three of his own sons to become famous performers and storytellers.
Roy married Doreen Frances, a young Noonuccal woman whose saltwater maternal line was from Stradbroke Island but whose English–Irish marine father forbade his wife and children from celebrating their Aboriginality. Roy and Doreen Page had 12 surviving kids together, born in the 1950s and ’60s and raised in the working-class Brisbane suburb of Mount Gravatt.
Roy worked as a concreter and landscaper; Doreen in a cannery and biscuit factory. Pop culture Friday nights together with music and Super 8 movies bound the family. Roy loved Fats Domino, Charley Pride and Chuck Berry; Doreen preferred musicals. The six brothers, all younger than their six sisters, dressed up as The Jackson 5 and The Supremes, playing concerts on the laundry roof, with family films projected onto a white bedsheet tacked to the wall.
Unable to afford tickets to the Easter Show, the backyard became their stage, and tyres fastened to a Hills Hoist deliberately broken by the second-eldest boy, David, to create a kink in its spin, would become a merry-go-round or an aeroplane of the imagination. A teenage pop star with hit singles who appeared on Countdown and The Paul Hogan Show, David, born in 1961, would later become a composer. He was comfortable in his identity as a gay man.
Stephen Page, born in 1965, says brother David was his creative director from birth until his mid teens. Stephen would go on to helm Australia’s only major Indigenous performing arts company, Bangarra Dance Theatre, at age 25. But he credits another brother, Russell, born in 1968, as the beautiful dancer who was “the first seed of the language of movement” of Bangarra.
After a three-year apprenticeship at Sydney Dance Company, Stephen took over Bangarra in 1991, with David composing the music and Russell on stage. “Somehow, people were liking this energy between the three brothers,” says Stephen, now 53. We’re sitting in a cafe near the Canberra Theatre Centre, where Bangarra’s celebrated latest show, Dark Emu, is on national tour. “We would be intimidating to some people because of our relationship. We didn’t even know.”
Eighteen dancers aged 20 to 44 perform in Dark Emu, an abstract retelling of Bruce Pascoe’s 2014 book that seeks to return pre-European Aboriginal agriculture and aquaculture to history, before it was whitewashed by colonialist revisionists. The work segues from fire to feast, stone rituals, massacre, sea, sky and singing up the land.
There is no senior soloist, no principal dancer in the company’s productions. Like the Page family, Bangarra moves as a mob. Some critics complain they can’t tell if these dancers are elements or humans. “I go, ‘What do you mean? We are both’,” says Page. “We are a theatrical, visual form that’s moving through body. Don’t label me a choreographer. I tell stories through this medium.”
Russell and David’s energy can still be felt in the work, despite their traumatic, sudden deaths, in 2002 and 2016 respectively. Stephen insists he was “pushed up front” by these two brothers, who were the more “natural” talents. He often mentions fate.
“There’s just a time and fate in life that I had to accept when they were all saying the same thing. Whether that was traditional consultants or my adopted mothers from up the north or people who just somehow believed in these three urban boys who were so passionate about song, dance and movement, they just trusted us to do it.”
Stephen Page has two children: stepdaughter Tanika, 30, a Pilates instructor, and son Hunter, 25, an actor and performer who starred in ABC TV’s Cleverman, from his former relationship with American-born former New York City Ballet dancer Cynthia Lochard.
He speaks highly of his two children making their mark in the world. But he has also been admiring his elders, of late, many of his urban cousins in their 60s, going back onto country. “They’re going back home and becoming a three-year-old again and relearning language because they’ve spent their whole lives washing this assimilated laundry of guilt and being victimised to be a certain way,” he says.
Author Bruce Pascoe – of Bunurong, Yuin and Tasmanian heritage – apportions much of the blame to religion. “The colonisers, being Christians, are meant not to kill, meant not to steal, so there has to be an alternative story to how that could take place in a Christian land,” he says. “Part of that is the excuse-making of Aboriginal people didn’t deserve the land, they were barely human,” he says.
Page agrees: “Any cultivating of human living in cults or Christianity, your mind becomes inured and poisoned to one way of thinking.” Pascoe and Page, however, identify a revolution taking place; a younger generation wanting to love their country, turning to First Nations ideas to address the parlous state of water and soil. It comes back to having the language, says Page. “Sustainability and climate change are the discussions they’re having at school now,” he says. “They weren’t the discussions we had at school.”
Next year is the 30th anniversary of Bangarra, as well as the UNESCO International Year of Indigenous Languages. Inspired by Bangarra chairman Michael McDaniel’s address to the Dark Emu launch crowd in his Wiradjuri tongue at Sydney Opera House in July, Page says he’s ready to learn more Munaldjali–Yugambeh and Noonuccal and to encourage Bangarra’s dancers to “dig in their own backyard for their own language”.
Consider, he says, the living language of Yolngu from north-east Arnhem Land, which produced the bark petitions in the 1960s, from which comes the word Makarrata. “Through this symbolism of visual art and story, under that came this kinship idea of connection to land, people and story,” says Page. “That’s why lore and customs exist. The Uluru statement mob, they all trusted this to be the new form and the new word that would bring the new constitution into the government.
“Malcolm Turnbull’s gone, ‘No, no, no, no’, because the power of that [language] now. I think the whole sovereignty movement is just going to brew and brew and brew. I reckon there’s something in the climate, and it’s coming.”
When David Page performed his show Page 8 in Brisbane, telling his pop star life story, dressing in drag and impersonating family members, the show ran an hour longer than expected, such was the improvisation. David’s rhetorical flourish of “You ask my father” was unexpectedly answered by an enthusiastic Roy yelling from the audience, “That’s right, my son.” The audience collapsed into laughter.
“I loved my dad,” says Stephen, “when my brother Russell died [he took his own life at age 34], we got really close. We got really close in the last 10 years.” Roy adored coming to see Bangarra perform but preferred the raw early works to the company’s later sophistication. He preferred not to hear swearing on the soundtrack, too.
“My dad was working as a landscaper–concreter for white men, and he was a good worker, and he was a better foreman than them, and he was only going to ever be the junior worker at the age of 50.
“One day, they were all going to get loans from the Commonwealth Bank. He went to the St Vincent de Paul and got a suit, and Mum said, ‘Where are you going?’ and he said, ‘I’m going up the bank to get a loan’, and she said, ‘No, you can’t. They won’t give you a loan; you’re Aboriginal.’
“I was 12 and really excited because I saw him dressed up: ‘Oh my God, he looks like a famous actor; he’s Brylcreemed his hair.’ He walked in the door and he had the longest face.” The loan was refused. “I was so angry. I knew why. He knew why.
“I just wanted to do it for him,” says Stephen. “I wanted to run a company.”
I remember sitting in the Bangarra recording studio with David Page at Sydney’s Walsh Bay in May 2014. He was fabulous fun, laughing a lot. He made jokes about Stephen’s seriousness, and reminisced that Russell, the dancer, would hide in here and play drums. David would turn the lights off in the studio and pretend not to know where Russell was when Stephen came looking for him.
“Everywhere I go [to live], I set up my little shrine for Russell,” David said then. “I’ve got these beautiful photos of him dancing and I’ve got them in these gorgeous frames. He’s always here.” (Eldest brother Phillip died early, too. He had a fatal epileptic convulsion at 25.)
I asked David how he would impersonate Stephen. “I would impersonate him like this old spirit. We all have these similar mannerisms. Very much like our father; storytellers. I would impersonate him by telling a story and exaggerating that story to the hilt. Because that’s what we’re good at.”
Every mob has its favourites. David Page was their father Roy’s favourite, says Stephen now. “You didn’t have to guess,” he says. “David was a lot like my father.” David was born Roy David, named for his father, and was one of a pair – his twin, Troy, did not survive birth. Often, if Stephen was angry with this mischievous older brother, David would lay fault with his ghostly doppelganger: “It was the twin, the twin,” David would insist. “You bugger, you’re making me think it was the twin,” Stephen would reply.
David, whose nickname was Dubboo, created 27 original scores for the company. He died suddenly in 2016. The family declines to name the cause. The company is planning a two-act celebration of David’s life for Sydney’s Carriageworks in December, featuring Iain Grandage, Archie Roach, Ursula Yovich and Djakapurra Munyarryun responding to his music.
“He was struggling that last year,” says Stephen. “It was really sad. He had personal struggles and he – look, it’s just really, really sad. But I feel empowered by it at the same time, because I know how he’d want me to go forward.”
Depression appeared to be a common denominator for Russell and David, I suggest. Stephen nods. “My mother had severe depression,” he says. Doreen is 89 and living with Alzheimer’s. “I’m not saying it’s fashionable to be bipolar [but] mental illness was a huge factor in genocide and assimilating cultures.”
Stephen says he promotes among his nieces and nephews the medical and counselling support services on offer. “It’s confronting when you have strong figures like my brothers who go down that path. My sisters have been the ones I worry about; they’re between 60 and 67 now.
“Big families are hard. They are exhausting. I run this romanticised artistic family that is Bangarra and sometimes my immediate family go, ‘Oh, the values you spend in there should be the values you spend here.’ I try to work between both. A couple of my sisters ensure we have family gatherings and we’re laughing and eating together.”
Stephen seems positive about the future. “There’s a dozen or more storytellers in Bangarra that have come from our own backyard. When I look at the foundation the three brothers come from – a big family and a clan and we move as a mob – that philosophy is lingering through the company. How long can it sustain?
“Will this legacy always be in the fabric here, or can anyone just come along and get their cultural template and go, ‘This is what I’m going to do?’ And that’s okay, because that’s what history does. You reimagine it.”
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 1, 2018 as "Brother courage". Subscribe here.