Indigenous readers are advised to use caution as this review contains the names of deceased persons.

Bangarra Dance Theatre is a national treasure, so it was with excitement and a touch of trepidation that this Hi-Fi Way reviewer settled down to watch their latest full-length work, Bennelong. This is the first major work the company has embarked on since the untimely death of Musical Director David Page last year. Stephen, the Artistic Director and major choreographer of the company, is the last Page brother standing – the youngest, dancer Russell, tragically took his own life in 2002. Tonight the company will tell the story of Woollarawarre Bennelong, a senior Eora man and one of the first to make contact with white colonialists in what we now call the Port Jackson area. Under the orders of King George III, he was captured in 1789 and brought into the settlement at Sydney Cove so that Governor Arthur Phillip could open dialogue with the First Nations Peoples.

Bennelong was the first Aboriginal man to write in English, ended up forming a strong friendship with the Governor, and in 1792 was invited to London to be shown off as a curiosity from the colonies. Upon returning to his homeland, Woollarawarre found himself caught between his new and old worlds, but accepted by neither. Addicted to alcohol, and cut off from his traditions, he died at 49. Choosing to tell this complex and heart-wrenching story through the chancy grey area that is contemporary dance will be no easy feat. Will Bangarra do everything it has done so well before? Or can it manage even more? The stage is empty but for a large round ring, which hangs like a promise in the centre of the stage. Welcome to Country.

Smoke unfurls like ghostly spirits from the ring as huddled groups of dancers, striped with ochre, move as one onto the stage. Brushes of gum-leaf are beat against their backs and white dust rises as their feet slam the floor. And so we are witnesses to the birth of Bennelong, and the atmosphere is deathly sacred, and he is the land, the land is him. The wailing song of Steve Francis’ score sends a cascade of goosebumps down the arms of those watching, and the movement of the dancers is earthy and grounded, the men deft and powerful, the women lithe and fluid. When the settlers enter the scene, their choreography strikes a stark contrast: they stand straight and tall, their arms are angular and forceful, hands raised to search, or to strike. The two groups move amongst each other, sniffing clothing, sizing each other up. The scenes playing out on the stage prompt questions of chilling immediacy in the watchers’ minds: What was it like? To be the first set of Aboriginal eyes that met those of a white invader?

We witness the character Bennelong as he is gifted a red military style jacket and black bicorne hat, and they dance to a sea shanty with disturbing lyrics: “Will not wash, will not work, all of the savages sitting in the dirt: Stay away, Bennelong.” Bennelong himself is played with electric alacrity by Beau Dean Riley Smith – he is utterly mesmerising, and as the protagonist, almost never leaves the stage. The natural smoky ring from the beginning of the work has been replaced by now, with a smooth black rectangle, a dark doorway oozing malady. This leads us to one of the more devastating scenes of the piece, as it depicts Aboriginal victims of the smallpox epidemic in May of 1789. The dancers step through the smoking door, they shudder and shiver violently, and Keating’s old words echo softly in this reviwers head: “We brought the diseases. The alcohol.” Bangarra veteran and skilled performer Elma Kris wails in anguish and despair as she tugs white-man’s clothes from the dancers’ shaking bodies, and Beau Dean Riley Smith carries their corpses away.

There is more: much more. A beaded curtain falls to show projections of the dancers faces, and their movements begin to coalesce. Words echo strongly amongst the score: “Victim? Survivor? Idealist? Realist? Should I resist the system, or work with it? Damned if we do, damned if we don’t.” The dancers are spectacular, every one of them. To put it too simply, the work is a moving photo album of Bennelong’s life and eventual death – we see his time in London, the characters resplendent in ballroom finery and dancing to string music, and then his return to Country as a different man. Jennifer Irwin, who designs her costumes “knowing they will be layered in ochre night after night … evolving throughout the season” lets her talent shine in the penultimate scene, as Bennelong playfully, then violently, dances with the women of the tribe, and is rejected. He is scornfully returned his red jacket and black bicorne, which becomes his drinking vessel. The audience watch torturously as Bennelong becomes less and less coherent, and more and more upset. This reviewer asks herself question after question through tears: Was he ever loved? Did he father children? Who was he, really?

When the dancers come out to take their bows, the audience rises to its feet, showing that Stephen Page and the Bangarra dancers have done it again, and created a stunning work, one that does what all good art should do: it makes you take it home, and carry it around with you for days, and months, and maybe years afterwards. Woollarawarre Bennelong was only 25 years old in 1789, but we are still telling his story.

Adelaide Festival Review by Lily May Roberts