In 1972 the notebooks of a young 18th century lieutenant were discovered in the King’s College Library in London. They contained the scribbles of First Fleet astronomer William Dawes who recorded the language of Sydney’s native Eora people.
Dawes’ teacher was 15-year-old Eora girl Patyegarang, with whom he formed a tender friendship (and maybe more); in return for the gift of knowledge, he documented her culture so that it would not be forgotten.
This unusual story of first contact is the subject of Bangarra Dance Theatre’s new show; it’s a tale of hope and mutual enlightenment in a colonial history that is too often bloody and dark.
Patyegarang is also somewhat of a homecoming for Bangarra, in their 25th year: it is the first time they’ve set a piece in their hometown. And with the original site of Dawes’ observation hut located just under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Opera House is a fitting venue.
At its heart Patyegarang is about the relationship between Patyegarang (Jasmin Sheppard) and Dawes (Thomas Greenfield). Sheppard provides a solid performance, but it is Greenfield who truly soars. His portrayal of power mixed with vulnerability – so at odds with his brawny physique – is all the more notable for being only the fourth time in Bangarra’s history that a non-Indigenous dancer has taken to the stage with the company.
The duets between Patyegarang and Dawes masterfully show a blossoming curiosity and intimacy. But director Stephen Page (artistic director of Bangarra since 1991) is careful not to cheapen or sensationalise the story by adding sex. Instead, theirs seems to be a meeting of souls: one scene, which takes place under the stars, is particularly touching.
As to be expected, Patyegarang references traditional Indigenous dance, customs, and costumes. Yet a score by David Page also adds modern beats that suit the more contemporary, fluid moves that the choreography morphs into. Overlapping the music is the Eora language loudly broadcast over the stage.
There are some stunning set pieces: in one, men wearing colonial red jackets drag around local Eora people, their violence echoed by the sounds of a gun which punctuates the music. In another, a man painted white and a woman painted black stand on crates. Carefully, lovingly almost, Patyegarang and Dawes stand behind them wiping off their pigment. It seems to be a reminder of the futileness of putting someone in a box because of their skin colour – something, presumably, the protagonists knew only too well.
Symbolic moments like these stay with you after the show ends. Yet Patyegarang packs less of a punch than it ought to and suffers from its overly abstract nature. Viewers who do not already know the story will receive scant cues here. And with such a compelling narrative to play with that seems like a missed opportunity.
Photograph: Bangarra Dance Theatre, Patyegarang. Credit: Jess Bialek