Now, acclaimed artistic director and choreographer Stephen Page brings Bangarra Dance Theatre’s outstanding work Spear to the screen. Peter Munro from The Sydney Morning Herald reports on Page turning to film to tell this deeply personal story, below.
Stephen Page sinks to his knees on the worn wood floor, mirroring the movements of his dancers in the shadowy studio by Sydney Harbour. Cruise ships slide by the window unseen as he sits with his shoes off and shirt collar turned up. He is sniffling from a cold on this sun-drenched day and thinking of getting away.
He breathes better when he goes country. The “blanket of the sky feels closer” because there’s so little pollution, he says, between morning rehearsals for Bangarra Dance Theatre. “You inhale and exhale differently, you take different breaths. We all live on shallow breaths in the city.”
He starts coughing, as if his body is rebelling against its surrounds. Internal conflict between city and country is a common refrain in Page’s first feature film, Spear, where the bitumen streets seem squalid and slightly hazardous. Young men hurl by in hotted-up cars. Dingy tunnels lead from the flickering fluorescents to the open skies and tall, straight trees of the bush.
“A foot in each world. A heart in none,” is a rare piece of spoken dialogue in the film, which is a strange hybrid of dance performance, experimental art show and a sharp kick to the eye sockets. It is a story of suicide, substance abuse and tenpin bowling, which somehow manages to finish on a high note. Variety recently compared it in broad strokes to West Side Story, minus the knife fights and a girl named Maria.
It is an intensely personal tale for Bangarra’s 49-year-old artistic director, who also co-wrote the film. Straddling two worlds is more than a creative curiosity for Page. His own life story stars a boy from outer suburban public housing – lip-synching into a hairbrush to The Jackson 5 – who becomes the head and beating heart of the country’s leading indigenous performing arts company.
Spear, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September, is more personal still because it features Page’s son Hunter Page-Lochard, 22, in the leading role, as a young Indigenous man teetering between his ancient culture and the contemporary world.
Hunter is taller and leaner than his dad and moves more freely, bouncing about in black skinny pants and short white socks and shoes, as we talk in an empty room by the water at Walsh Bay. Page, sitting next to his son, is shorter and stockier, even with his black baseball cap perched high on his head. His steps are a little heavier but then he’s seen so much more.
“It was a lot different in my dad’s time,” Hunter says. But little has changed in the challenges facing young Indigenous men, he adds. “It’s an endless cycle. I am kind of tired that there are still these issues and ignorance.”
Page is proud of his son, leaning in close when he leaves the room to whisper: “He’s so good in the film, isn’t he. I forget he is my son. I was looking at him on the film set and I was going, ‘Oh my God, Hunter is actually me. This is my story.'”
That story is a visceral experience of dance and death, leavened by the light breeze of the bush and dashes of dark humour, such as a snippet of the 1955 film Jedda playing in a bright-lit bowling alley, or an old Indigenous man standing clueless at the bottom of an escalator.
Page says that scene was based on the time he brought groups of Indigenous women from the Central Desert to Sydney in 2000, to perform in the work he choreographed for the Olympic Games opening ceremony. “I met them at the airport and just naturally jumped on the escalator,” he says. “Then I heard this cry and there were about 15 of them all stuck at the top.”
“As I ran back up, they all jumped on like penguins, crying out ‘Mr Lympic, Mr Lympic’. It was like they were foreigners from Asia or somewhere, but this was their land.”
Hunter plays a similar role at one point in Spear, running back down an escalator to rescue the old man, only to find he’s not needed. His character Djali is an impassive observer with a tenuous foot in both worlds. The consequences of mis-stepping are clear in the character of the Suicide Man, played by Aaron Pedersen.
Page says he knew of such a man, an Aboriginal lawyer in Perth caught between his traditional community and mining company clients. “He got a taste of western machoism – as I call it – and he would be rubbished by his mob and challenged by the white people.
“He had the perfect foot in each world – but was it perfect? He lost his wife and children. He turned to alcohol and gambling, and he ended up taking his own life. I know a lot of stories where men have got a taste of both worlds and they are not able to stabilise that, and they’re exhausted. They’re just ripped apart.”
Such tensions have played out in Page’s own journey. “I feel my whole life has been a pendulum, a see-saw of experiences.”
He was raised as one of 12 children in the boondocks of Brisbane, listening to the Osmonds and Michael Jackson, and pretending to be an American superhero in a mask made from his mother’s pantyhose. Traditional languages were rarely spoken at home – Page once said his parents had “grown up in a world in which they needed to behave like whites to survive”.
His first experience of his ancient culture came in his late teens, after he joined the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association, in Sydney, and went with them to Arnhem Land. He learned a brolga dance while visiting a remote community. Moving and stomping in the red dirt awakened his spirit, he says. He later joined the Sydney Dance Company, before being appointed artistic director of Bangarra in 1991.
“My fate in life has been about caretaking our cultural stories through dance and music, and building a bridge between the urban and traditional,” he says. But it’s not been an easy fate at times. Page says he is still seen in some remote Aboriginal communities as “that yella fella from down south”.
Many young Indigenous men similarly wonder where they belong. “If you don’t grow up with language you are really flogged out by traditional people, who say, ‘If you don’t have language you’re not Indigenous’,” he says. “That really rips them apart, because they come from an assimilated culture, of generations where their parents weren’t even allowed to be proud of their culture.”
Spear is derived from the Bangarra show Skin, in 2000, and is at heart a masculine story, driven by young men super-charged with testosterone, mischief and misunderstanding of the world and each other. Its journey to the big screen began after executive producer Robert Connolly watched Bangarra perform at the Arts Centre, Melbourne, in 2013, and asked Page backstage whether he wanted to direct his first feature film.
The pair had worked together in 2011, when Connolly invited Page and 16 other artists and filmmakers to each adapt a chapter of Tim Winton’s book The Turning for the screen. “The idea of The Turning was to introduce a whole new group of directors and creative minds who were liberated from a lot of the more typical conventions of filmmaking style,” Connolly says.
Spear was shot over three weeks on a budget of about $1 million, with assistance from the Adelaide Film Festival’s HIVE initiative, along with Screen Australia, the Australia Council for the Arts and the ABC.
Director Rachel Perkins, who worked with Page on her 2009 film Bran Nue Dae, says the big screen is a natural progression after Page’s 24 years at Bangarra. “Stephen is a great example of someone who manages to live in two very different worlds with great ease. He is as comfortable with traditional bush people as he is with Sydney Opera House crowds.”
He has been a cultural leader for many years, she adds, sometimes at great personal cost. “People don’t understand the sacrifices he has made in terms of his family and social life to sustain Bangarra for such a long period of time,” she says. “He’s just soldiered on where other people might fall.”
This morning at Bangarra, one of the dancers is having a birthday and Page wishes her well before they break for chocolate cake. He tells his troupe that today would have been the 47th birthday of his younger brother and muse Russell. He clasps his hands, looks towards the ceiling and smiles.
It has been 13 years since Russell hanged himself, after his successful Sydney premiere in Bangarra’s Walkabout. He had earlier starred in the stage version of Spear, alongside his then seven-year-old nephew Hunter Page-Lochard.
Page dedicated the film adaptation to his brother. “He loved that idea of the diversity of Aboriginal man,” he says. “Russy is always with me. He just loved performing and nurturing the next groups of dancers. He just had a shit personal life that wasn’t great.”
The troubles depicted in the original stage production – racism, alcohol abuse, suicide, deaths in custody – remain spectres in the lives of many young Indigenous men. “It just feels like these issues have gone through the washing machine and the dryer, and they’ve come back and they’ve gotten dirty again,” Page says. “And we just keep cleaning them but they still get dirty – nothing gets resolved.”
He despairs at the booing of Indigenous AFL player Adam Goodes after he performed a ceremonial “war dance” while playing for the Sydney Swans. “Our war dance is completely different to the western version of a war dance – it’s just about protecting and shielding your energy,” he says. “Anglo society is so used to being in charge that when Indigenous cultures want to empower and express who they are, we are judged.”
“I have always thought we are racist and discriminating in this country, whether we like it or not. I think we are at a period of time where we can be quite open about it. It’s just unfortunate that Adam is the one who has to carry that conversation.”
Given all this, it’s a little surprising that Page’s film ends on a bright note. Hunter’s character dances with his mob by Sydney Harbour on a sparkling day – similar in many ways to the scene where Page and I are now talking. “God, it’s a beautiful country,” he says, looking out the window.
Hunter is “my eyes for the future”, he says. His son keeps him advised about pop culture and social media (Page is yet to join Facebook). He hopes Hunter might find his own way as an Indigenous man with an ancient culture in a modern age. “If he can have a foot in each world and a heart in each, then that is a great thing.”
I ask Page if he’s optimistic about the future, despite the struggles he sees. “Oh yeah, yeah, yeah,” he says, sounding cheery despite his cold. “There’s always optimism in our stories. We can get into some really dark issues and not resolve them, like in the film, but there is something lingering in the music or images – a sense of hope.”
Don’t miss Spear on Riverside Theatres big screen 4 April, featuring a post-screening Q&A with producer John Harvey (via Skype).