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Famed Australian dance company shuns 'ooga booga'

July 12, 2011

This Bangarra Dance Theatre handout photo received on June 27 shows dancers Daniel Riley McKinley (top) and Waangenga Blanco (below) performing a routine from the new Bangarra production “Belong”. - AFP photo

SYDNEY: Australia's Aboriginal dance company Bangarra has won global accolades but says it has been a victim of its own success in terms of funding at home and at times faces demands for “ooga booga” abroad.

Formed in 1989, the Bangarra Dance Theatre is the country's foremost indigenous performing arts company and is often called on to be Australia's cultural ambassador at major events.

But the troupe, which performs everywhere from remote Australian outback communities to the likes of the World Economic Forum in Davos, carries a significant but underfunded cultural load, said executive director Catherine Baldwin.

“It's great to be able to wave the flag for Australia,” Baldwin said. “My concern is that it doesn't necessarily translate into securing the company for the long run to do the work that it does.”

Bangarra, which has plans to tour Asia in 2012 with China, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore likely on the itinerary, has won acclaim overseas, particularly in its tour last year of Germany where the dancers regularly received five or six curtain calls, Baldwin said.

But Bangarra artistic director Stephen Page said some British critics still expected the troupe to perform what he termed “ooga-booga dancing”.

“The London critics expected the company to do traditional anthropological dance rather than telling contemporary Australian stories in the way we do,” he told The Sun-Herald recently. “Perhaps they couldn't cope with the fact that we have a dynamic, living, modern culture that draws on over 50,000 years of tradition.”

Baldwin said this response was only encountered in Britain, describing it as “a misunderstanding” over the fact that Bangarra represented a link between the ancient and modern and was not an anthropological artefact.

“We're a contemporary artform that draws on and is inspired by this extraordinary ancient culture. But they seemed not to be able to get their heads around that,” she said.

Asked whether Bangarra gets the right amount of government support for its work – which includes developing original works, travelling around Australia and overseas, and working with indigenous communities – Baldwin was firm.

“No, I don't think we get enough funding for that,” she told AFP. “Unlike any other dance company our work originates and is inspired by the traditional cultures of Australia – the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture.

“To get permission to use the dances, the songs, the stories, the customs and artefacts and so on requires us to have a very strong relationship with traditional communities and that takes a lot of time and effort and expense.

“You can't just pick up a script or have an idea while you're sitting having a coffee,” Baldwin explained, adding that all the work was informed by the traditions of a culture stretching back some 50,000 years.

“And so you need to take the time to learn it, to gain respect and to gain permission,” she said.

“It would be the same as if Puccini or Verdi were alive and you needed to travel to where they were... you'd have to spend time with them learning that.”

She is backed up by former chairman Aden Ridgeway who has said he is concerned about the disparity in funding for Bangarra within the cohort of major performing arts organisations in Australia.

In the group's 2010 annual report Ridgeway said this was “especially significant as Bangarra is the only indigenous organisation within this group”.

Baldwin said while it is difficult to compare arts companies, Bangarra received less money than other groups, in part because the company has not needed to be bailed out.

Last year, the company made a profit of close to Aus$50,000 (US$53,140) from a total income of Aus$3.8 million. Of this, some Aus$1.8 million was provided by the Australian and New South Wales state governments.

Baldwin said Bangarra would give 110 performances in 2011, in major Australian cities, regional towns, outback communities and overseas, a major workload for its 15 dancers.

“We're a really very successful company and we're extremely happy with the way we operate and with our artistic and cultural success,” she said. “But there are fundamental requirements of dance companies and there is a fundamental requirement for us in terms of our cultural work that we are not funded for... To actually take work back to communities is a really expensive activity and of course there is no revenue associated with that.”

Despite the costs associated with this approach, Baldwin says there are many benefits in bringing the works back to Aboriginal communities, which are the nation's most disadvantaged, with many indigenous people living in poverty.

“We know that there is a very significant cultural role Bangarra plays; sure it's a piece of entertainment in a theatre but it has way more cultural resonance than that,” she said.