Online, Global

07/03/2023 - 26/03/2023

Auckland Arts Festival | Te Ahurei Toi o Tāmaki 2023

Production Details

Written & Directed by Wayne Blair & Nel Minchin

“As the 20th century turns into the 21st, you can’t tell the story of Aboriginal Australia without featuring Bangarra – indeed they tell the story.” — Hetti Perkins

Taking us through Bangarra Dance Theatre’s birth and spectacular growth to its 30th anniversary celebrations in 2019, Firestarter recognises the performing arts company’s founders and tells the deeply affecting story of how Aboriginal brothers Stephen, David and Russell Page turned the newly born dance group into a First Nations cultural powerhouse. This acclaimed, multi-award winning documentary explores the loss and reclaiming of culture, the burden of intergenerational trauma, and the power of art as a messenger for social change and healing.

★★★★★ “[A] beguiling kind of history lesson and an engrossing, fast-moving celebration of artistic creation… deeply moving.” — The Guardian

“Using our artform as our weapons is the way we have to fight.” — David Page

Online 9–26 March
Streaming on Vidzing

Contains political and social themes, including aspects and depictions related to traumatic events suffered by First Nations Peoples. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this work contains images and voices of deceased persons.

Written & Directed by Wayne Blair & Nel Minchin

Dance , Digital presentation , Dance-theatre ,

Their path as cultural leaders seemed fated, inevitable. They had found their ‘ mob of survival’ and took charge of their own destiny.

Review by Lyne Pringle 28th Mar 2023

“As the 20th century turns into the 21st, you can’t tell the story of Aboriginal Australia without featuring Bangarra – indeed they tell the story.” — Hetti Perkins

Firestarter: The story of Bangarra – programmed as part of Te Ahurei O Te Tamaki/Auckland Arts Festival – opens  with a voice over from Stephen Page, one the founders of Bangarra Dance Theatre: ‘Story telling is the best medicine for supporting us as a society . . . recreating a new Dreamtime’*. As he speaks a young Aboriginal dancer leaps in slow motion as ash swirls around him. Bangarra means ‘to make fire’. This company, ‘one of the most respected First Nations companies on the planet’ (AAF Brochure) has been forged from the heat of passion and the pain of intergenerational trauma to stridently blaze a future and as Page states ‘keep the Dreamtime alive’.

The documentary is carefully crafted with historic footage, excerpts of the company repertoire and commentary from key Aboriginal members of the company and wider community. 
Bangarra was founded by African American dancer and choreographer Carole Y Johnson, Gumbaynggirr man Rob Bryant, and South African-born Cheryl Stone. Stephen Page was artistic director from 1991 to 2021, with Frances Rings taking over in 2022.

At one point Stephen Page talks about the relatively short period of time that company has existed compared to 65,000 years of Aboriginal culture. It is a salient point but the film captures the extraordinary trajectory the company has been on in the 33 years of its existence.

When they sprang out of the Aboriginal and Islanders Dance Theatre and school in Sydney, (later known as NAISDA), in 1989, a ‘holy trinity’ of three Page brothers, Russell, Stephen and David alongside other key founders, were the wairua of the endeavour.

Hattie Perkins states that Stephen Page had a ‘fire in his belly . . . you can’t put that torch down’. Page was the artistic director for 29 years but it came at a cost.

Excerpts from precious home movies are compelling:  following the young Page brothers from their family of twelve kids in a Brisbane suburb ‘always entertainment, always performing, through to discovery, early stardom and eventually joining NAISDA. Their path as cultural leaders seemed fated, inevitable. They had found their ‘ mob of survival’ and took charge of their own destiny.

In the ferment of 1970s, 80s and 90s Australia, Aboriginal voices were demanding to be heard, legislative change was happening, albeit at a glacial pace. In counterpoint artistic practice was taking off like a rocket. There are clips from key rallies and marches which underpin burgeoning artistic efforts utilizing a fusion of traditional cultural elements and contemporary dance. Paul Keating’s 1992 ‘admission of responsibility speech’ in Redfern Park is a knock-out moment.

The film gives a brilliant context for stultifying colonial practices. It is shocking to learn the impacts of assimilation strategies and that Aboriginals had no legal status until late in the 20th century. This provided fuel for the fire for these young artists. They had a mission to keep their culture alive and through story to educate the wider public.

Bangarra emerged from humble beginnings on the smell of an oily rag doing four or five schools’ show a day to survive. Stephen Page became the director at 26, harnessing a fierce work ethic and masses of talent. Success and a a new narrative for Indigenous futures unfolded as a new generation connected with traditional practices by visiting remote country and being immersed in the power of the corroboree.

Footage from performances is used sparingly but it provides an understanding of the unique artistic voice and repertoire that evolved, incorporating contemporary and traditional elements of dance – always returning to the source for confirmation and authenticity.

The results are electrifying and leave the watcher yearning to see these works live.

There is an extraordinary section dedicated to the opening of the Sydney Olympics, choreographed and directed by Stephen Page where hundreds of Aboriginal people come from all over Australia. Many have never left their tribal lands.

The Page brothers were at the helm of a mob of extraordinary artists, but this tale of resurgence and hope is also tragically sad. Two of the brothers struggle despite their enormous passion and talent and ultimately leave Stephen Page to hold the torch on his own. The impacts of intergenerational trauma due to colonization of the indigenous people of Australia resonates throughout the film. The past continues to haunt.

Bangarra Dance Theatre creates healing art; art as a solace; art as a conduit, art as a container for unbearable generational pain. 

Sensational dancer and now director of the company Frances Rings says towards the end of the film, ‘Our children need to know they are understood and important’.

The refreshing and vibrant thoughts of the next generation of dancers, many of whom are related to the pioneers, ends this riveting documentary on a positive note.

 ‘The urban tribe of Bangarra is like a warm blanket for me’ is one of the closing comments.

* Aboriginals believe that the Dreamtime was way back, at the very beginning. The land and the people were created by the Spirits. They made the rivers, streams, water holes the land, hills, rocks, plants and animals. It is believed that the Spirits gave them their hunting tools and each tribe its land, their totems and their Dreaming.

The Aboriginals believed that the entire world was made by their Ancestors way back in the very beginning of time, the Dreamtime. The Ancestors made everything.

The documentary is available for purchase on line and on netflix
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