Dance review: Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Yuldea

Yuldea tells a powerful story of survival through an alchemical union of movement, vision, music and spirit that elevates this production from mere performance to sacred ceremony.

Aug 11, 2023, updated Aug 11, 2023
Lillian Banks and Kallum Goolagong in Bangarra Dance Theatre's touring production 'Yuldea'. Photo: Kate Longley / supplied

Lillian Banks and Kallum Goolagong in Bangarra Dance Theatre's touring production 'Yuldea'. Photo: Kate Longley / supplied

Frances Rings has choreographed previous Bangarra productions but Yuldea, her first as both choreographer and artistic director, promises exciting years ahead. As a Wirangu and Mirning woman from the Far West region of South Australia where this story belongs, it is not surprising that she chose to bring that story forth for general audiences to witness through a deeply respectful, collaborative process.

Those from the communities to whom the story of Yuldea belongs travelled great distances to attend this opening night, which begins with a traditional greeting by Mirning Cultural Consultant Clem Lawrie. Yalata Cultural Consultant and Pitjantjatjara Anangu woman Maureen ‘Mima’ Smart, accompanied by Frances Rings, comes to the stage to share her memories of Ooldea, the most frequently used name and spelling for Yooldi Kapi, the traditional name for a permanent claypan waterhole on the traditional lands of the Kokatha people, a place of deep cultural significance and one of the most important Aboriginal sites in Australia.

British settlement brought cataclysmic change to the traditional lives of Anangu people, first with the building of the Trans-Australian Railway in the early 1900s which drained the waterhole that had sustained life for thousands of years, and then by the devastation of the atomic bomb testing at Maralinga, which further cut people off from the lands that had provided them with sustenance and cultural connection for millennia.

Yuldea is presented in four acts played out in a circular arena fringed by a curtain of rafter-to-stage strings which, together with lighting changes, effectively reflect each act’s contrasting moods. The first is Supernova, the unfolding of creation and destruction traditionally observed in the night sky by Anangu clans. Semi-obscured at first by a dark, gauzy screen, the Bangarra cast of 17 dancers, dressed in black and ashen, metallic grey, writhe and leap in frenzied movements that reflect the chaos of creation; when the screen is raised it is as if a veil being lifted on an ancient story, one we are privileged to witness.

In the second act, Kapi (water), the curved firmament of stars glows above, connecting earth with sky, as Kapi spirits (Lillian Banks and Kallum Goolagong) pave the way for water-finders – birds, dingoes – and the water-holding roots of the mallee tree (Daniel Mateo, Kassidy Waters). This act of lightness and beauty is enhanced by heart-stirring soundscapes created by composer Leon Rodgers and guest composers Electric Fields, and the sublime costumes designed by Jennifer Irwin, invoking a real sense of the sacred.

The next act, Empire, comes as an extreme contrast. The dark, rough costumes, stark lighting and heavy industrial beats reflect the disruption of colonisation while a British voice intones the words of King William IV; the arrival of the railway is represented by tracks brought into the sacred circle, the impact of Christianity brought by the mission established at Ooldea and then, the most destructive of all, Black Mist, representing the atomic testing at Maralinga.

It is the final act, Ooldea Spirit, that comes as an affirmation of the resilience and strength of the Anangu people: the despite the damage and disruption caused by colonisation, kinship ties, the continued passing on of stories from generation to generation, and the ongoing connection of people and families to land and to sky, make this perfect performance one that not only emphasises the importance of a history shared, but one that also has the potential to heal.

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Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Yuldea is being presented at Her Majesty’s Theatre until 12 August

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