IMPRESSIONS: "FIRESTARTER," The Story of Bangarra Dance Theatre

 IMPRESSIONS: "FIRESTARTER," The Story of Bangarra Dance Theatre
Deirdre Towers/Follow @deirdre.towers on Instagram

By Deirdre Towers/Follow @deirdre.towers on Instagram
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Published on March 26, 2021
Photo: screengrab from "FIRESTARTER"

Writer/Directors:  Nel Minchin & Wayne Blair
Producer: Ivan O’Mahoney 
Editors: Karen Johnson & Nicky Meyers ASE 
Dance Company: Bangarra Dance Theatre

Pain doesn’t just disappear. It lingers, rearing its head in unexpected ways, sometimes in moments of joy. That emotional juxtaposition permeates FIRESTARTER. This documentary wonderfully succeeds in its mission to honor the artistic and socio-political achievements and the challenges of Bangarra Dance Theatre, founded thirty years ago in Glebe, Sydney, Australia, by three Page brothers: Stephen (choreographer), David (composer), and Russell (dancer).

Born poor but exuberant in Queensland, Australia, the brothers grew up in a large family far from their Aboriginal roots. However, once they experienced their Nunukul people and their Munaldjali clan of the Yugambeh Nation from South East Queensland, they embraced and initiated a re-birth of this 65,000-year-old culture, the longest continuously surviving one in the world. The Bangarra Dance Theatre uniquely incorporates the Aboriginal traditions and mystique, as woven into contemporary dance sensibilities.

Four shirtless men stand in a row; one stares, another looks over his shoulder,  ahead while the other two bend at the waist to touch the floor
Photo: screengrab from "FIRESTARTER"

What a thrilling turning point for Australia’s awakening of its rich history and for Bangarra Dance Theatre when it brought together Aboriginals with non-indigenous people (for many — for the first time) in the 2000 Olympic ceremonies.

The film directors Nel Minchin and Wayne Blair stated, “We explore the status of Indigenous people in the country today, by examining the life of a company and its leader, who despite commercial success, pride and empowerment are still hurting. The trauma isn’t ‘in the past’ as many Australians, including the government, would assert.”

A man in a flannel  shirt stands in front of a wall of pictures, directing dancers
Photo: screengrab from "FIRESTARTER"

At the beginning of the film, we see giggling, clowning kids full of mischief. By the end, only one brother, Stephen, remains standing, fiercely driven by the suicides of his two brothers to create despite — or because of — the tragedy. Stephen points out that there were six suicides in his family. Too much, he can’t be blamed. Yet he pushed through his grief to create his most ambitious work Bennelong, about an Aboriginal who befriends the first governor of New South Wales, Arthur Philip, and straddles the two worlds. 

Archival footage and affirmations from authorities and artists close to the subject make the viewer sense why this company enjoyed international acclaim and stability. The editing by Karen Johnson and Nicky Meyers jars you into feeling the non-sequiturs that splinter their history. We are left pondering how and from whence comes the power to create a phenomenon that defies all expectations.

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