Wudjang: Not the Past
Bangarra Dance Theatre
Director: Stephen Page
Writers: Stephen Page, Alana Valentine
Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre
January 14 – February 12, 2022
While Wudjang: Not the Past is director and choreographer Stephen Page’s most personal work, it is also a work that demands collective ownership of difficult truths as the way forward into de-colonisation. The monstrous excavating machine that hangs over the stage like the sword of Damocles conveys the enormous capacity of the industrialised West for the destruction of the connection between earth and sustenance, between a land and its people.
The narrative of Wudjang takes us on two journeys. The first is initiated by bones found during an excavation and reclaimed by Yugambeh man Bilin. The bones belong to his ancestor Wudjang, the word for “mother” in the Language of the Mununjali clan of Ygambeh Country, the land of Page’s ancestry and birth. We follow Wudjang, danced by an always authoritative and charismatic Elma Kris – accompanied by a very other-worldly and beautiful Lillian Banks as Gurai, or Wonder – on her journey through colonisation to her return to Country where she and Bilin belong.
A second journey tells the story of Bilin’s niece, Nanahng (a touching Jess Hitchcock), as she journeys from fearful reluctance to accept her ancestral connection to Wudjang. Nanahng’s maternal ancestral line, powerfully referenced through the commanding presence and vocals of Maren (Elaine Crombie), advises her to “Ngay binangmah nyuhmba” (“Watch, listen, learn”) and know that the bones are not, as the young woman says “only bones” from the past. Uncertain of her place, Nanahng is vividly depicted as caught in the coils of white society rejecting the pain of the past as “not her shame, not her ask”.
Vignettes of past shame are varied in impact. The planting of the claiming flag by the inept, foolish figure of the white man Duggai (Justin Smith) is comical in that the ground resists him and “the million white sheep” of pastoral times roll about sycophantically, knocking and butting each other oblivious to the true nature of the land. Their inanity is underlined by a short but electrifying performance by Beau Dean Riley Smith as the black sheep intended to warn them that they are intruders. Resistance is fuelled through cultural rites that revive and strengthen the spirit of Wudjang.
However, it is only after the traumatic massacres of the past are fully revealed in the agony of flesh and Maren displays the power of her rage against the violation of women that Duggai feels shame. In confessing it, he liberates Nanahng from her fear. She opens herself to the spirit of Wudjang and the two stories merge in a rather Hollywood tableau. We feel that the rightful resting place of Wudjang’s spirit is within the young, who can use knowledge of cultural ways to reconnect with a still living past and create a hopeful future:
“While the land is here we are
While the land still breathes …
We will never leave.”
While there is much praise for Wudjang in bringing together 17 accomplished dancers, five strong actors, four talented musicians and mixing the world of the song cycle with the energy of dance, its greatest strength is the use of Mununjali language. Language has power in itself – a magic. In listening to the spoken word, to its sibilants, its rhythms, its patterns, we absorb a feeling, a reverence, for Country about which and through which Page is telling both his own story and our story.