Stephen Page was a cocky and confident 26-year-old when he took over as artistic director of what has grown to become Australia’s only major indigenous performing arts group, Bangarra Dance Theatre.
Twenty five years later, the now 50-year-old Page and the Bangarra company are at the forefront of taking indigenous stories to the world.
But for the former dancer and choreographer who grew up in suburban Brisbane, his own journey of cultural discovery was bitter-sweet.
“You come from the South,” he says. “The South assimilated culture. My father was the last generation brought up not being proud of your culture.
“I come from a hidden Holocaust generation.
“No, I didn’t grow up with a traditional life. Did I have language? We had a bit of lingo but it was taken away from my parents. Forbidden.
“It was more dysfunctional than anything.
“But my connections came from working with living traditional elders and language and connecting with the North and then rekindling back to my mother and father’s story.”
It’s set to be a busy year for Page’s 25th anniversary at the creative helm of Bangarra, the 17-member strong Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance theatre troupe based at the Sydney Opera House.
His first feature film Spear — starring his actor son Hunter Page-Lochard and the Bangarra dancers — is opening in cinemas nationally and the big triple bill Our Land People Stories opens at the Sydney Opera House in June before touring nationally.
Another production Terrain will be performed at the Parramatta Theatre in March before a regional tour later this year.
It’s a demanding pace and for Page every minute counts.
“I just go…,” he says. “I pretty much gave my whole spirit and energy to Bangarra in the 25 years.
“I try to be a foot in each world and balance the role between protocol, and culture traditionally and from an earth perspective.
“You have to take the black message to the mainstream.
“My own little personal life is a cave I go into.”
A descendent of the Nunukul people and the Munaldjali clan of the Yugambeh Nation from South East Queensland, Page says he came from a performing arts family.
Growing up in Brisbane, “there was always pop culture music, going on country and doing cultural activities”, he says.
But it wasn’t until he was working for the legal service in Brisbane and spotted an advertisement for the college of the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association in Sydney that he thought of a career in the arts.
“You learnt everything from modern dance to having elders come down and teach you traditional living dance,” he says. “It was a bit like Fame, the school. It was a performing arts school for culture.”
Page graduated in 1983 and worked as a professional dancer for the Sydney Dance Company and also the Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre.
His brother David also became a performer and composer and his late brother Russell, a dancer.
Bangarra was in its infancy when he joined as its principal choreographer in 1991 and inside a year became its artistic director. He admits he had the confidence of youth.
“It was mainly in a more traditional education form,” he says of Bangarra in the early days. “Over the years it’s woven and weaven together stronger.
“Your craft becomes a different way of crafting. You gain the stories and you get attention and then you gain confidence and then you build from there.
“I’ve been fortunate to have great artists, great dancers, great boards, great management and support and the governance of the company has always been clear.
“Yeh, we’ve had hard challenges, but there’s a strong spirit about the existence of this company and I’ve been lucky I’ve been there. I’d do this all again.”
Bangarra has since performed all over the world and Page became the first indigenous choreographer to achieve major national and international recognition.
He is particularly proud of Bangarra’s staying power. “Bangarra is a major performing arts company,” he says. “There are only 28 in the country. Out of the Australian Ballet, the Opera and everything, Bangarra is the only indigenous.”
Over the years there have been plenty of highlights, but Page says directing the indigenous sections for the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games Opening and Closing ceremonies were special moments.
“I think you get addicted to rekindling your own cultural stories and the uniqueness of that…,” he says. “If you weren’t brought up in a traditional way but in an urban way… you spent a lot of your energy reconnecting.
“I’ve always taken our cultural message into the mainstream rather than just go into the mainstream and be a universal global person in the arts. I’ve always been really proud of our stories and fascinated with telling stories from a black perspective.
“I think that’s the craft I’ve learnt along the way.”
Ochres – Bangarra 2015 – Tara Robertson – Photo by Edward Mulvihill
For Bangarra’s full schedule visit bangarra.com.au.