Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Healing Steps: Bangarra Dance Theatre (2003)

When Stephen Page's brother committed suicide a lot of things happened. They're still happening a year later, almost to the day, as the artistic director for Bangarra Dance Theatre prepares for the Sydney season of the company's latest show, Bush.

"It's the kind of ceremony," he says, "that I wanted to have for Russell when he died, but somehow couldn't have, or couldn't make happen, I don't know."

The absence of his inspirational lead dancer, let alone his younger brother, is no easy thing to ignore in a company that has flourished with Russell Page at the forefront since 1991. This year's Helpmann Award for Best Male Dancer, awarded to Russell posthumously for his role in Bangarra's 2002 show Walkabout, acknowledged yet another memorable performance among the many that mark him as one of the finest dancers to emerge in this country.

It's a mixed triumph. As Stephen Page says, Walkabout was "almost a sign of Russell taking his own life", although he also feels "Russell was unhappy for the last two years really."

His brother's suicide at age 34, in the early morning hours after Walkabout's closing night, is nonetheless shadowed by that show's strangely premonitory energy. In focusing on the devastated culture of Aboriginal people, on past and present trade-offs - exchanging flour and heroin for what was once a Dreamtime - Page and co-choreographer Frances Rings exposed the colonising, suicidal and, ultimately, genocidal forces at work in the contemporary indigenous consciousness. At Walkabout's centre were some flickering performances from Russell Page that were as disturbing as they were impressive - times when he seemed truly lost.

"Did I cause it?" Stephen Page asks. "Did I take him too far?"

These are not questions the older brother dispenses with lightly. They come in rippling, unanswerable moments beside the cold, sunlit waters of Sydney Harbour. A lot of our conversation is actually a series of questions from him to me, rather than the other way round. "What do you think depression is?" he asks at one stage. "Do you think it's our spirit trying to talk to us?"

When we meet at Bangarra's studio a little further along Wharf 2, I'm not expecting such a frank interview, even though we've known each other well for years. Page is weary and preoccupied, burdened by the dual pressures of producing a new work for Bangarra and maintaining his other position as the artistic director of the 2004 Adelaide Festival. His major concern for now, however, is his son Hunter's 10th birthday that weekend. "He wants it to have this MTV dirty pop type theme," Page says. "He's really got me into Justin Timberlake."

Cheered by talking about his son, Page also remarks on seeing Deborah Mailman recently, who he jokingly warns "not to turn into a TV icon like Denise Drysdale". Then he quickly says, "Oh no, don't put that in the story, she'll hate me forever!" before going on to praise her acting and her beauty, as well as her talents as a director and a writer, expressing his gratefulness for her "calling straight away when Russell passed".

Along with Mailman, Cathy Freeman and director Rachel Perkins, Page talks passionately about the "sympathy" that exists between a rising generation of Aboriginal leaders who are "like cultural shields".

Among those "shields" is Senator Aden Ridgeway, who was at a small but exclusive preview for Bangarra's sponsors the day before. "He'd just been at a party meeting and when we said hello he told me, 'I need some energy, brother,'" says Page. "We shook hands but I felt like I wanted to hug him. When I think back, I realise he was reaching out to me. I should have held him closer."

Before long, our talk circles back to his brother. Page says some people who "think" or "feel" they knew Russell - or who "loved him for his beauty or his talent, or admired him and maybe felt close to him" and "some people who know those people" - have openly blamed him for the suicide. He has had heard the "gossip", the "whispers".

It hurts. Beyond the intense communal bonds of indigenous life, Bangarra has been a family-driven enterprise to the core for more than a decade, from Stephen Page's choreography to their brother David's atmospheric musical scores and Russell's dynamism on stage. From a working class Brisbane family of 12 children, Page explains that "Russy was the youngest, number 12. I'm number 10. David is number eight (at age 42)."

He says the family was "just blown apart" by the death.

"It was a shock, a real shock. It wasn't like we were expecting it to happen."

When Page finally says, "Russell was responsible for Russell", you'd think he was cradling a baby rather than making any judgements. He just wishes his brother had "given himself more time to ask the right questions. I think he would have asked himself those questions if only he had waited longer".

"I really thought he could have danced till he was 90," says Page, 38. "The saddest thing is I know Russell wanted to choreograph a work for children. I hope I have some of his spirit in me to do that one day."

He's especially distressed for Russell's three children. Though he has told the eldest of them "sometimes in our clans we lose our father-leaders young. But you have a second father. Your father's brothers."

After all this heavy talk you might imagine Bush to be a sombre affair. Instead it's a joy, as Bangarra returns to the early vibrancy of a show like Ochres, drawing on a typically modern interpretation of the Dreamtime creation stories of north-eastern Arnhem Land. The compelling presence of Kathy Balngayngu Marika from Yirrkala, as guest performer and cultural consultant, is a highlight. Water emerges as an important theme, partly because Page describes Bush as "a cleansing ceremony". The dominant and serene female energy that emanates from the show is another aspect to this "healing".

"Russell had a lot of problems with Western macho energy. It pissed him off," Page says. "He had no ego about it. He was always trying to defeat it."

This softness leads me to suggest that his older brothers were somehow better able to cope with the pressures of success than Russell. Page pauses, then says, "Russell always got mixed up with the wrong energy. He had sympathy with followers. And yet he had the energy of a leader."

Bush shows the ensemble at its peak, as if the whole company has heard the call to pull together. When Russell died, his brother made sure every member of the company was given counselling. Within two weeks they were performing at the funeral. Page says he felt it would have been wrong to "let them all go into their own little caves and grieve". Later he also admits, "I was in my full-on optimistic mode, but I was so angry, too. I was determined to make this big traditional ceremony happen."

You sense that every step of the way Page was trying to make things right. In some ways, his most meaningful moment during that time was taking Russell's body by car from Sydney to Brisbane. "Russell loved driving up the coast whenever he travelled home. I thought it was important to do that. We stopped at places like Lennox Head where Russell would have stopped if he had been driving. So we could let his spirit go surfing there for 15 minutes."

Throwing himself back into work, Page was in New York representing the Adelaide Festival a month after the funeral. He shakes his head. While there he had a breakdown, contracted pneumonia and spent a month in hospital after developing a severe allergic reaction to antibiotics. He was put on drips and lost 12 kilograms.

"I think now it was my spirit respecting me; telling me it was OK to stop and cry. I could feel Russell with me in that hospital room every day. He was always smiling. I feel him with me all the time, really. I just had to stop blaming myself. I know Russell would have wanted me to keep going. And now here I am, doing it again."

- Mark Mordue

* This story was first published under the title 'Healing Steps' in the Sydney Morning Herald, July 19th 2003. Together with his fellow choreographer Francis Rings, Stephen Page is about to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of Bangarra Dance Theatre with 'Fire', a retrospective selection from a vast body of dance work the like of no other in this country, or for that matter the world.


= All portraits of Stephen Page by Gerald Jenkins.
~ Above at Alice Springs, August 19th 1999.
~ Below in Sydney, September 30th 1995.


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