Wearing a pale blue shirt and a trucker’s cap, Stephen Page, artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre turned filmmaker, is a magnetic personality, the sort that lulls you into listening far more than questioning.
Even amidst the hubbub of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image’s bar, ahead of a gala screening of his strangely hypnotic debut feature Spear, Page’s energy and passion cut through. The film celebrates Bangarra’s particular fusion of indigenous contemporary dance and the ancient traditions the company draws upon.
It stars his son, Hunter Page-Lochard, as a young man torn between the disorientating lure of drink and drugs in the suburban sprawl and a deeper connection to the land out bush, though not quite feeling at home in either. His somewhat chaotic guide in this mesmeric, largely non-vocal and physically driven piece of dance-meets-art installation is the gravitas of Mystery Road’s Aaron Pederson. Something of a vision quest, it beguiles and confounds.
“I wanted to tap into people’s spiritual consciousness,” Page says. “I didn’t want to make a traditional film. It was made on an oily rag, but we’ve made it rich in spirit.”
Sharing his mother’s love of musical theatre, as they devoured the likes of West Side Story and Grease during his childhood in Brisbane, it was the sight of Michael Jackson strutting his stuff in the video for ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’ that inspired Page to pursue choreography. Studying at the National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association, he then went on to join the Sydney Dance Company before securing the top job at Bangarra at only 25, with a brief segue to helm the Adelaide Festival.
I didn’t want to make a traditional film. It was made on an oily rag, but we’ve made it rich in spirit.
While dance has been his driving ambition, film keeps leaking into his life. Having made his acting debut appearing as himself in suburban Melbourne-set comedy series Kath & Kim, Page went on to use his Bangarra skillset choreographing for Rachel Perkins’ Bran Nue Dae and Wayne Blair’s The Sapphires.
“The black peers that I know quite well, my brothers and sisters, they work in the medium of film, so we’re always sort of sharing stories and they usually come to Bangarra for a theatrical experience, and that usually inspires their work, so they’ve all been waiting for me to cross over,” Page laughs, before acknowledging that the main drawback, as he sees it, is an inability to write his own scripts.
“I suppose that’s where I’ve always stopped, because obviously is the first thing that has to be done and if there’s one thing in life I’ve always wanted to be is a writer, but I’m totally hopeless.”
It’s a perceived weakness his brother David, award-winning composer and regular Bangarra collaborator, relishes ribbing his sibling about. “My brother said to me, in a bitchy way actually, ‘we’ll you can’t do everything.’”
Familial banter played a huge rule in defining a young Stephen, who says he was the fairest of 12 kids and was continually told he was the milkman’s. “I think I cried every day because of that thought of belonging to a milkman and not my father, who is black as anything, but he always said I was the blackest anyway because I’d always be the one going, ‘where is our language, why did we get assimilated, where’s the culture?’ I was doing that as a nine-year-old and I would drive him insane. By the time I’d become a teenager he’d call me the radical one, ‘my blackest and the fairest.’”
Read more about 'Spear' at NITV
A huge part of Page’s character is an insatiable curiosity streak, and that was fired by closely observing cinematographer Bonnie Elliott at work on Sand, the segment he directed of compendium piece The Turning.
“I surrendered to my ego and was happy to be a three-year-old child asking Bonnie, what does that lens do and why can’t it do that?’” he says. “With Bonnie, we really built a relationship to communicate what the spirit of the photography was.”
The Turning producer Robert Connolly was impressed by their working relationship, and confided in Page after attending a performance of Bangarra’s Blak. “He said to me, ‘oh god I loved working with you and Sand was one of my favourites,’ and I was like, ‘yeah sure, you probably said that to all the other directors.’”
Modesty aside, Connolly followed through, pointing Page to the Adelaide Film Festival’s Hive fund, aimed at commissioning ambitious arts-related projects. The trick was, he did so on a Friday evening, and applications closed the following Monday. Rising to the challenge, Page decided to adapt Bangarra’s already existing, 38-minute work Spear, entering a USB stick of the live performance with Connolly assisting on a written summary of intention.
Out of around 100 applications, Spear was chosen, with little over a year to complete the film, sparking delicate discussions with the Bangarra board to make room in their program so Page could direct and the dancers could star.
With Sand writing partner Justin Monjo back on board, Connolly producing and brother David handling the score, Page felt secure in the creative environment. Elliott was once more behind the camera too, relishing Spear’s poetic movement.
“She loved it, because the less dialogue the better it is for the photography and she gets to play,” Page says. “We didn’t have learning time, so I was just doing it on the job and Bonnie and I would clash, but usually it was like 4.30pm in the afternoon because we realised we were running out of time. She’d have to drive me home and I’d be quiet for five minutes, then I’d ask, ‘can we go eat some really trashy food?’ My dad always told me to make up before I wake up the next day.”
I’ve always wanted to bring a sense of hope to anything I do. I don’t thrive on negativity.
The Babadook editor Simon Njoo came on board last-minute, as many others baulked at editing the sprawling, free-flowing piece. “They thought it was just too ambitious with no money and five weeks to edit it. With no dialogue, you’re just editing movement and photography, but they looked at me like I was mad.”
Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival before its Australian debut at the Adelaide Film festival, Page laughs when he says that son Hunter was sorely tempted to ditch it in favour of following Matt Damon into The Martian, screening at the same time.
He hopes that Australia will continue to progress towards not just reconciliation, but an embracing of its impossibly rich First Nations culture, perhaps one day even using indigenous languages side-by-side with English. He was impressed by Leonardo DiCaprio using the Golden Globes as a platform to champion First Nations people on winning Best Actor – Drama for The Revenant and would love to cast him one day, “But he’s too handsome and distracting for me. I’d have to put a bag over his head.”
Keen to pursue film alongside Bangarra, he hopes that Spear will bring a little indigenous spirit and culture to the world, acknowledging that it is not a commercially driven film. “I’ve always wanted to bring a sense of hope to anything I do. I don’t thrive on negativity. We’re all spoiled in this country. You have no idea what it’s like to walk for miles and try and find a border you can call home.”