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The Bangarra Dance Theater blends the traditions of Australia's indigenous people with contemporary movement.

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As is the case with countless indigenous peoples worldwide, claims to their homeland along with basic human rights have been trampled upon. The Australian Aborigines are no different. But unlike other disenfranchised groups; many Aboriginals have effectively filtered into mainstream culture, slowly winning them more and more sympathy. The 10-year-old Australian troupe, Bangarra Dance Theatre, is a prime example. Since the company's founding 12 years ago, it has achieved critical acclaim, including the honor of being selected in 2000 to perform the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games held in Sydney.

Their newest work, "Corroboree," embraces Dreamtime, the time when animal spirits roamed the land without human intervention. Like previous productions, this three-part work, showing at University of Richmond Oct. 19-20, blends authentic Aboriginal dance and song with contemporary movement and sensibilities. Earthy yet mystical, "Corroboree" moves between ancient ritual, bodies covered in clay, gestures suggestive of kangaroos and sea turtles, and phrases customary to modern dance. With a stage set with dirt, sand and water, the dance journeys through the cleansing of spirit in "Bolga," stalking prey in "Roo," and the turbulent life-and-death cycle in "Turtle."

Aborigines preserve much of their history through dance and song. "Corroboree" is in an immersion into their culture and traditional beliefs, which reveal a deep respect for land and its inhabitants. In fact, to ensure portraying history accurately and not to upset ancestral spirits, the company seeks approval from clan elders before performing any of the 40,000-year-old stories for the public. Getting consent falls into the hands of Djakapurra Nunyarryun, who, in addition to his role as cultural consultant, is also the company's senior dancer and didgeridoo player, a traditional instrument made from bark hollowed out by ants.

With every member of the company a descendant of one of the many clans spread across the Australian continent (many also passed through NAISDA, an indigenous dance school), a large part of the company's mission is to increase understanding of Aboriginal people. Artistic Director Stephen Page says, "We speak for the elders. ...Bangarra is not about me. It's about a culture; it's about young artists coming together as a young contemporary tribe. It's optimistic, it's positive, it's about healing, it's about cleansing...especially for the next generation."

As powerful as the work is with its evocations of spirit and celebration of earth, it also ends up being a quietly political message assisting the indigenous cause for recognition. Their work returns performance to its roots as religious ritual, simultaneously reinvigorating possibilities for modern dance. Balancing the ancient with the contemporary without trivializing either is no easy task, but Bangarra Dance Theatre carries it off with great skill.

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