Bangarra Dance Theatre. Photo courtesy of the artists.
Bangarra Dance Theatre. Photo courtesy of the artists.

Australia’s Bangarra Dance Theatre, an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander company, describes its work as drawn from 65,000 years of history, culture, and land. Honestly? It shows.

A collection of pieces that vary in length, Spirit shares stories from across Australia’s Indigenous peoples. Watching it feels ceremonial, grounded, and – for lack of a better term – natural. It’s as if the dancers have steeped themselves in tradition and story and then simply let their bodies move.

In many of the pieces, the dancers’ movements are animalistic, evoking birds, wolves, and other creatures. They are not animalistic in the way of acting like animals, however. If anything, they seem to be breaking down the barrier between humans and animals, perhaps revealing that we are all the same species after all.

As a Canadian Settler of Mennonite descent, I have no knowledge of what the rituals of various Aboriginal Australian tribes might be. In Spirit, though, there were several moments where it felt I was not only watching an ancient ceremony being practiced but was invited into it. In terms of choreography and staging, these moments were incredibly simple, and yet I was utterly transfixed.

There is a lot of strength in the company of dancers, especially the presence of Elma Kris, who plays the role of an Elder in several pieces throughout the night. Kris’ presence is generous and grounding to the ceremony happening on stage, culminating in a beautiful moment of reverence from the rest of the company.

The lighting design by Matt Cox, Joseph Mercurio, Karen Norris, and Nick Schlieper is incredibly effective, sometimes hiding dancers who slide in and out of the light like apparitions.

Special recognition is needed for the composers and sound designers, Djakapurra Munyarryun (credited for traditional choreography and music) and David Page and Steve Francis (credited for music). The score masterfully blends everything from modern dance beats to traditional drums and singing to the animal sounds of the Australian outback. The effect is incredible.

Very few dance shows make me want to run home and do some research. Still, I left the theatre brimming with curiosity about the stories and culture that Bangarra Dance drew on in its work. I also felt like I had gone through a spiritual experience, one that I am ready to evangelize about.

Spirit continues at the Vancouver Playhouse (600 Hamilton St, Vancouver) with one final performance on October 26. Visit dancehouse.ca for tickets and information.