The Influence

For Bangarra’s former artistic director Stephen Page, his brother’s song ‘Young Man’, written in Yugambeh language, is a gift to the future. By Maddee Clark.

Stephen Page

An Indigenous performer during the opening ceremony of the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games, and Stephen Page (below).
An Indigenous performer during the opening ceremony of the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games, and Stephen Page (below).
Credit: Danny Lawson / PA Images via Getty Images (above), Tiffany Parker (below)

Content warning: This piece contains the names of Aboriginal people who are deceased.

Stephen Page is a Nunukul and Munaldjali man born in Brisbane. He was Bangarra Dance Theatre’s artistic director from 1991, choreographing more than 25 works for the company before announcing his retirement late last year. His achievements include the feature-length dance works Spear (2016), Bennelong (2017) and Dark Emu (2018). His most recent work, Wudjang: Not the Past, is deeply rooted in Page’s own Yugambeh Country.

He’s chosen to discuss the song “Young Man” by Roy David Page.

Tell me about “Young Man.

David, my late brother, was a performance artist and a composer. He came out [as gay] when he was 15, and he brought us all together. He would compose a new album every year, and he’d made 33 works since the time we started working together way back. He’d work with mob from all over the country, actors and singers, who would add an additional voice to his composition. There were always many voices involved. David always loved using live song, and we had experimented with that on stage.

My Granny, Ann Fogarty, was a single woman with many children, half of whom were taken away. Dad was the youngest of eight children, born 1931. Granny Fogarty was removed from her land. Many of the men of her community at the time were being exploited in systems of domestic slavery – they were all displaced and removed. We easily forget in this generation how their lives were back then.

Dad, who passed away in 2010, spoke Yugambeh language fluently. He and David were very close, and they would talk in a lot of depth about culture and language. Dad understood the foundation David and I worked from, the way we wanted to rejuvenate the old stories in our practices, and the ways we wanted to use and respond to Western forms of story and knowledge. He saw our shows, he saw the contemporary arts context we worked within.

He had an understanding of the cultural and linguistic displacement we felt, he could feel that. That gave him a safe place to communicate as he got older, to reflect and talk about his past. So he shared language with David, and David composed “Young Man” using that language.

Our language has evolved and transformed over generations. Many branches of our mob have been exploring it and relearning it. When a whole generation is forbidden to speak language, when they get in trouble for speaking it, it isolates and it traumatises. For my father, on his deathbed, to speak fluent language to David was beautiful. He was able to communicate his spirit in that way to David. David created a four-minute-long song out of that experience. That was another level of relationship and connection he could have with my father.

How did you work the song into the piece you created for the 2018 Commonwealth Games opening ceremony?

David passed away in 2016. The song he’d made had always stayed with me, and I wanted to put it in a work where it would be cared for properly. I could feel and hear my dad in the song, even though I didn’t hear him speak fluent language myself. I could hear how he was feeling and what he was thinking through David’s song. I could hear how his ancestors would carefully speak that language.

When the Commonwealth Games took place in the Gold Coast in 2018, we created a work for the opening ceremony that was all about the loss of significant business, ceremony and cultural practices, and how to reconnect to land after being displaced. I was thinking of my brother, my father and our land. The song David made became a 10 to 15 minute-long section of the ceremony, and the central relationship of the dance piece we created to accompany it was between an older man and a younger man. From our community, we had 200 young jarjums and 100 Elders between the ages of 60 and 84. The dancers and performers who put their hands up to participate, none of them had done ceremony before in that formal way. They hadn’t heard language, allowed it to embody them, to move through their physicality through ceremony before that.

We used the wedge-tailed eagle, which is one of our significant totems. My cousin’s grandson worked at the bird sanctuary and he collected eagle feathers for us to use, because he happened to look after wedgetails there. The Bangarra mob roped the feathers together so the dancers could use them as accessories. So we weaved many elements together to colour in the space of David’s music, to perform this ceremony for the Commonwealth Games.

It’s so contradictory, thinking about the white Commonwealth, which had assimilated First Nations countries, yet we were there at the opening ceremony doing this reconnecting. I remember this English producer for the Games saying to me, what if the audience don’t understand this? The producers also asked me if I could cut it down to 10 minutes. But our ceremonies went from sunset to dawn. I was really angry.

It’s important to know you can use these mainstream platforms to plant an Aboriginal voice. I’ve spent all my career doing this. If you’re going to have a platform, you have to lay the foundations so that mob can come and let their stories be entrusted to it, and they have to know that the beautiful thing about it is that it’s driven by that Black lens. That has to shift people’s consciousness. We’re not going to change anybody overnight. But we are honouring previous generations of storytellers through dance, theatre and ceremony.

Wudjang sounds like it’s connected to this work you started in 2018.

It is. Wesley Enoch had the idea to do something on an epic scale. I kept thinking of home, about the value of Black storytelling and its purpose, what we have here in our foundation as a company at Bangarra. I kept thinking about the work of reconnection that’s taken place over the past few decades, particularly in the south – about assimilated and displaced landmarks, about people being removed from land, but also about stories of Goori and Murri mob going back to Country, spending time there and learning language. I thought it would be great to use the Yugambeh language and nation in the story. Then I started thinking about doing live songs, how language can be used operatically.

My brother’s always haunting me at night. The question of why I’m making a story about our home now, after all these years in my role at Bangarra, comes up. At my age, 56, I feel like it’s the right time. For me Wudjang is about going back home, what it feels like to put your foot on Country, and the truth of that spiritual connection; the act of standing firmly and quietly on Country. That’s what this work is. The Western-style narrative is on the outside of the work, but at the heart is that story of reconnection.

When I see the generations above me who had these cultural practices taken from them, who were forbidden to speak language but they still had language growing inside them, it’s very meaningful for us to come back and do that reconnection after all those years. It makes me reflect on how we own our trauma. This is the responsibility we have as First Nations people, it’s what makes us resilient. This is the best gift you can pass onto the next generation.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 5, 2022 as "Stephen Page".

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Maddee Clark is a Yugambeh writer and editor.

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