One of the greatest things about Stephen Page’s choreography is the way he is able to tell a story through dance. His latest work for Bangarra Dance Theatre, Mathinna, is based on the true story of a Tasmanian aboriginal woman who was taken from her family as a child in the 1840s.
In the opening scene, Towterer, performed by Patrick Thaiday, lies prone in darkness. A finger of light shows his hands creeping over a rock, holding it close to him: he is one with the land.
As the light changes, three men hang by their ankles from a white rod, elbows bent to suggest the tiny wings of mutton bird chicks. The Tasmanian Aboriginal people ate young mutton birds, stolen from their parents’ nests. The image is perhaps an omen of what is to come for Mathinna.
Dressed in animal skins and body paint, Towterer and his tribe fashion long spears, they are a strong people who survive in the harsh and rugged wilderness. Their dance is one of unity and vitality, serious in tone yet full of vigour. At one point the men perform what appears to be part of a traditional dance, their legs stomping with hands stretched open, but most of the movement is in Page’s signature contemporary style.
In comparison, the white-clad figures of Governor Franklin and his wife appear upright, aloof, disconnected from their environment. Portrayed by Sidney Saltner and Yolande Brown, they travel in a straight line across the stage, busily making gestures suggesting their cultural attachment to books, possessions and clothing.
Many of the scenes are quite literal. During the capture of the tribe, people frantically try to escape or fight the invisible white men, who are evidenced by the sound of galloping horse hooves, gunshots and a military drum beat. Through the chaos, a vision of young Mathinna emerges, cowering and shaking, as her father, Towterer, kneels with a rifle pointed at his head.
Mathinna is eloquently performed by Elma Kris, who easily slips into the character of a shy girl as she is adopted into the household of the Governor. The Franklins examine her as one might a new pet, before Lady Franklin begins her assimilation into white society by giving her stockings, shoes and a yellow-haired doll.
Yet on her first night, Mathinna dreams of her own people, who emerge from the furniture, performing lusciously otherworldly sequences. The men in particular seem as comfortable on the ground as they do standing up, transitioning between prone, inverted and upright postures with a smooth, organic quality that belies the difficulty of their manoeuvres.
Mathinna’s loyalty is clearly torn as she is paraded in front of guests at a ball, seated on a pedestal and surrounded by a life-size picture frame. She reaches out to Lady Franklin for affection but is pushed away, and while her step mother shows some anguish, she removes the girl’s shoes, stockings and doll and abandons her, returning to England. Mathinna is again left alone, rocking and hugging herself for comfort.
At this point, Mathinna enters the Queens Orphan School in Hobart, a cleverly choreographed scene of stylised children’s play set to a soundtrack of clapping hands. Just when Mathinna finds the rhythm of the canon, scratching, coughing and scribbling at her desk in time with the other girls, she is set adrift, blindfold, sent to live with the remaining aboriginal population at Oyster Cove.
Here she observes another dream-like scene, where the dejected tribesmen, dressed in cast-offs, shuffle along the floor as though their hands are bound. Two men perform a duet, leaning heavily on each other for support, a symbol of their loss of independence and former strength. They raise up the corpse of Towterer, who takes hold of the mutton bird spit, echoing the earlier phrase. While Mathinna marvels at the apparition of her father, she is unable to connect with him and he soon disappears, leaving her once again, alone.
Mathinna’s demise into sexual abuse by convicts and her addiction to alcohol is graphically, poignantly depicted. In reality, Mathinna died aged only 20, drowned in shallow water, possibly drunk. On stage, Kris slowly removes her red dress and cradles it like a dead child, before gently laying down behind a row of large moonshine jars. But just as it seems that the story has ended in despair, Mathinna rises from her watery grave, called up by the voices of her ancestors, and returns to them, whole and strong once more.
Mathinna is equal parts theatre and dance, portraying a tragic tale through movement and imagery that speaks of a tragedy beyond words. The combination of brilliant lighting, costuming, music and performance makes it a must-see.
Visit http://www.bangarra.com.au/diary/mathinna.html to find out national season.