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Dance, Color and Aboriginal Art
How the Bangarra dance company can help us understand the enduring influence of the first artists
By Courtney Suciu
In celebration of its 30th anniversary season, Australia’s Bangarra dance company has embarked on an ambitious national tour showcasing an extraordinary program of music, dance and storytelling that marries the traditional with the contemporary.
According to The Australian Financial Review1, selections for this performance were specially selected to help the nation reconcile with its violent colonial past, as well as to honor – and keep alive – the customs and traditions of its ancient, indigenous cultures.
“While the dance company has existed for 30 years, these works represent the diverse spirit of storytelling. When put together they’re a gift back to 65,000 years of heritage,” Bangarra’s artistic director Stephen Page told the publication.
“My mum and dad, like most Aboriginal people, were forbidden from talking their language,” Page explained. “They couldn’t be empowered by their identity.”
Bangarra’s performances helped them “reconnect with their trauma by making them relive it,” he added, “but in a good way.”
We dig back into the dance company’s history and look at the program that garnered international acclaim for Australia’s first indigenous dance group. Why did Bangarra’s seminal show Ochres resonate with audiences around the world?
What insights about Australia’s indigenous cultures does it reveal?
And how can it help us understand the enduring influence of Aboriginal art and ritual in the modern world?
Founded in 1989, Bangarra dance theater (whose name means “to make fire in” in the Wiradjuri language) appointed Stephen Page (formerly of the Sydney Ballet) artistic director in 1991. Three years later, the company debuted its watershed production, Ochres, mesmerizing spectators around the globe. The program, choreographed by Page and assistant director Bernadette Walong with music by David Page (Stephen’s brother), was unlike anything the world had ever seen.
“Ochres was really important work at the time,” Stephen Page told the Sunday Telegraph2 in 2015. “It cemented and seeded that wonderful sense of who Bangarra is today with its crossover of contemporary and traditional (indigenous) styles.”
This program explores the significance of ochres, a natural clay pigment that varies in color, in Aboriginal cultures. “Ochres come from the land to paint the body in Aboriginal totems, awakening the spirit,” according to a statement in the opening scene of the show3. “Ochre has inspired and guided this contemporary performance of our land, our stories, our spirituality.”
Ochres is divided into four acts, each focused on a different colored pigment and its symbolic meaning. According to the Sunday Telegraph, “yellow represents mother earth with her flowing rivers, sunshine and seasons; black explores men’s business and initiation; red is about the relationship between men and women; while white shows the white ochre spirits preparing people for the day ahead.”
A 1996 review from The Times of India4 explained “Ochres is about belonging to the land, about relationships with the land, about the power and mysticism of the land.”
“For the ancient people,” the article continued, “dance was not entertainment, it was a physical expression of a spiritual state of mind.”
Because of the sacred nature of dance in Aboriginal cultures, presenting it as entertainment for contemporary audiences could have been problematic, but according to the review, Aborigine co-choreographer Bernadette Walong “ensures the authenticity of everything drawn from the culture.”
Understanding the significance of ochre
For researchers, Bangarra’s performance can present a unique entrée into a deeper exploration of Aboriginal cultures and the meaning of ochres – and by extension, the relationship indigenous people have shared with the land.
In his book Ochre and Rust: Artefacts and Encounters on Australian Frontiers5 Philip Jones offered a closer look at the significance of the famed ochre mines at Pukardu Hill near Parachilna in what is now Southern Australia.
He explained the red ochre collected from Pukardu was valued for its “sacramental, transformative qualities.”
“An association between blood and ochre is implicit in religious beliefs of many cultural groups worldwide,” he wrote. “In Aboriginal Australia, this link was held as an essential and intimate value, not readily shared with outsiders.”
The first colonists arrived in the region during the 17th century and Jones noted that while “a variety of artefacts were offered in exchange for European commodities…red ochre was rarely traded with white people.”
For the Europeans, “red ochre was at once too esoteric and too mundane a substance to attract much attention,” he continued. “Popular literature of the frontier described it simply as ‘ruddle’ – an unprocessed, elementary form of paint, another marker of primitivism.”
But for Aboriginal people, the value of the potent red pigment went beyond its ritualistic use. The very act of mining the ochre was an integral part of indigenous culture. According to Jones:
The red ochre expeditions can be regarded as archetypal religious pilgrimages. Apart from being long and arduous (up to 500 kilometres), the journey was directed to a religious goal of fulfilment involving catharsis and renewal…For several weeks, while the expedition lasted, its members also shared a spirit of camaraderie and adventure common to all religious pilgrimages. The journey was embedded within the religious calendar of every adult male across a wide area of eastern Central Australia and had probably been so for hundreds of years.
However, Jones pointed out, “during the mid-nineteenth century all that was to change.”
Confrontations between Aboriginal communities and European settlers grew increasingly violent. According to one example from Jones, “Aboriginal people of the Flinders Ranges [of Southern Australia] still retain oral records of a massacre near Beltana [settled by European copper miners) involving members of an ochre expedition during November 1863.”
Such confrontations were just one of the ways colonization had a ruinous impact on one of the oldest living cultures in the world.
Ochre and Aboriginal art
While Jones described ochre-mining expeditions dating back hundreds of years, the use of these mineral pigments in Aboriginal cultures dates back tens of thousand of years. According to an article by B.H. Stuart and P.S. Thomas6, archeologists have found “the oldest continuous tradition of rock art in the world exists in Australia and this provides an important component of the culture of Aboriginal Australia.”
They noted how this rock art “is represented by many different artistic styles and techniques, often reflecting artistic practices during particular time periods. As such,” they wrote, “Australian rock art is of great archeological interest.”
For these researchers, the mineral pigments used in ancient works of rock art are a source of invaluable insight into indigenous cultures and heritage. Stuart and Thomas delved into what analysis of “the composition of complex pigment mixtures” reveal “how and when they were applied.”
Such discoveries can profoundly inform understanding not only of the evolution of indigenous cultures, but also provide a glimpse into the evolution of human creativity and our inclination for self-expression in art and language.
In her article “Red, Black or White? The Dawn of Colour Symbolism,”7 Simona Petru considered the relationship between sound and color in Paleolithic art around the world. According to Petru, color is used like speech to communicate our feelings; and in turn, color also functions to influence our feelings. In this way, “colours have the potential to be very powerful symbols."
“It is difficult to imagine how much colour in the Paleolithic was perceived as colour per se and how much as an essential part of a depicted object – so red might mean red ochre and not just red hue,” Petru observed, adding that the “Aborigines in Queensland use the same word oti for blood and the red colour.”
This revelation about the linguistic overlap between blood – the liquid of life – and the word for its color further illuminates the sacred nature of the red pigment mined from Pukardu. It also imbues deeper significance into how the color red is used Bangarra’s Ochres to symbolize erotic passion between lovers which often results in new life.
Petru concludes that “there are no easy answers to many questions regarding preparation, use, and the meaning of pigment used in art and everyday life. But there is no doubt that color was an important agent of transmission of information and feelings of the first artists.”
However, we’d argue this isn’t only true of the first artists.
As the Bangarra dance company continues to demonstrate, the use of color endures as a critical way to communicate information and feelings for contemporary Aboriginal artists, too.
For further research
The Global Issues Library includes videos, primary sources, books, scholarly articles and more related to the history and on-going struggles of indigenous people around the world. This collection provides information and insights on such topics as:
Indigenous populations and the environment
Aboriginal music, art and storytelling
Forced separation of children from indigenous families
The legal rights of indigenous people
- Fowler, E. (2019, Jun 14). Bangarra Dance Celebrates 30 of 65,000 years. The Australian Financial Review. Available from ProQuest One Academic and ProQuest Central.
- Jo, L. w. (2015, Nov 22). Bangarra Back to Dig up Meaning of Ochre. Sunday Telegraph. Available from ProQuest One Academic and ProQuest Central.
- Burstow, S. (Director), & Burstow, S. (Producer). (1996). Ochres [Video file]. ABC Commercial. Available from ProQuest One Academic and Academic Video Online.
- BANGARRA DANCE. (1996, Oct 22). The Times of India (1861-Current). Available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
- Jones, Philip. Ochre and Rust: Artefacts and Encounters on Australian Frontiers. Available from Ebook Central.
- Stuart, B. H., & Thomas, P. S. (2017). Pigment Characterisation in Australian Rock Art: A Review of Modern Instrumental Methods of Analysis. Heritage Science. Available from ProQuest One Academic and SciTech Premium Collection.
- Petru, S. (2006). Red, Black or White? The Dawn of Colour Symbolism. Documenta Praehistorica, 33, 203-208. Available from ProQuest One Academic and ProQuest Central.
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu