Firestarter – The Story of Bangarra (written and directed by award-winning screenwriter and actor, Batjala/Mununjali/Wakkawakka man Wayne Blair, and filmmaker Nel Michin) takes a detailed and personal look at how one of the nation's most successful and world renowned performing arts companies was born.
Bangarra is a Wiradjuri word meaning ‘to make fire’, and this company is known internationally for fusing traditional and contemporary Indigenous Australian dance. To date, the company is one of the only all-First Nations dance companies on the globe.
As Bangarra celebrates its 30-year anniversary this year, the company has cemented its place in the collective national Songline that is the story of Aboriginal Australia.
“You can’t tell the story of Aboriginal Australia without featuring Bangarra,” East Arrernte/Kalkadoon arts curator and writer Hetti Perkins says.
The beginnings of Bangarra Dance Theatre, as well as its continued success and longevity, are intimately bound to the story of the three Page brothers: Stephen, David and Russell, or the storyteller (choreographer), the music man (composer) and the dancer (lead artist).
“Even when you say it, three brothers sounds like the beginning of a dreaming story,” Sydney Festival Director Wesley Enoch says in the film.
The Page brothers are Nunukul mob and Munaldjali clan of the Yugambeh nation of South East Queensland.
“The thing we loved the most was our culture and feeding that through a contemporary expression,” says Stephen.
Stephen was appointed Artistic Director of Bangarra in 1991, aged just twenty-six. He has retained that role ever since.
This intrinsic connection between the artistic director and his dance company is reflected in Firestarter, which, along with interviews featuring founding members and original dancers, looks back at the dynamic, humorous, dysfunctional and loving family life of the Page brothers.
Growing up in Mt Gravatt, Brisbane, there were twelve Page children – not uncommon for blackfella families back in the 40s, 50s and 60s. Footage of old home movies depict a fun-loving, music-loving, performance-loving family, that nonetheless dealt with alcohol and substance issues, linked to racism, colonisation and transgenerational trauma.
Firestarter shows it all, and is unwaveringly authentic, raw and deeply touching as a result.
“Every family's not perfect, and we all experience our ups and downs." Page says.
The film is by turns inspiring and devastating, as it charts the passion and dedication of the three brothers working at the company, before documenting the deaths by suicide of Stephen’s beloved brothers Russell and David.
“Once you accept that challenge and carry that torch, that’s all you do…you never get to put that torch down. I think that sort of thing comes at a cost.” – Hetti Perkins on Stephen Page
At the time of Russell’s death in 2002 he was considered ‘one of the best professional dancers this nation (had) produced, black or white.’
David was an award-winning composer, musician and performance artist with a phenomenal ability to capture his deep culture in his scores when he took his own life in 2016
Stephen speaks of the despair and immense grief he has held on to since his brothers' deaths. After David's suicide, Stephen poured himself into his work.
Bangarra had one of the company’s most successful shows ever in 2017 with Bennelong, perhaps a kind of proof that Russell and David never left; changed form maybe, but never left. Their spirits live through their brother Stephen in ways the world has seen, and will continue to see.
Bangarra Dance Theatre is an evolving legacy, a connection for our elders, youth, and everyone that claims Australia as their home.
Firestarter is currently showing in cinemas across the nation.
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