David Unaipon (1872-1967) was a Ngarrindjeri man who spoke Latin and Greek and endorsed assimilation, yet insisted Aboriginal culture was as rich and complex as any other ancient culture. Unaipon was a scientist, a dandy, an historian, an inventor and a Christian. He was, according to choreographer Frances Rings, an in-between, a man brave enough to walk in a land that had no track.

A sense of cultural duality might put Unaipon in the too-hard basket for other performance companies, but for Bangarra he’s perfect.

The company formed in 1989 with the mission of presenting a blend of traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance with international contemporary dance influences. Their latest offering Clan includes the biographical Unaipon, which explores the fraught cultural two-step of the man who now appears on our $50 bill.

Rings explained Unaipon had his critics in the Aboriginal community.

Well, for a start, he embraced assimilation, Rings said. And this was when people were calling for a national day of mourning -¦
But at the same time that he was talking about assimilation, he was also asking for the possibility of having an indigenous state where Aboriginal people could run their affairs and maintain their culture -¦

It wasn’t embracing whitewashing or anything like that, but he just wanted to know how his people were going to survive in the next century, Rings said.

Rings is now associate artistic director of the company, a role brought about after the startling and glowing reaction to her choreographic debut with the Rations segment in Walkabout. Rings was rewarded with the task of co-choreographing Bush with artistic director Stephen Page, before going solo again with Unaipon.

He [Stephen] really nurtured me a lot and saw that I had a bit of a taste for choreographing. I was really shocked that I was being given this sort of responsibility, especially doing Rations, but the wonderful thing is there’s so much support and trust, Rings said.

Still, Unaipon offered some edgy challenges. Unaipon was fascinated by the theories of Isaac Newton, developed modern shears for shearing sheep and made the connection between helicopter aerodynamics and the boomerang’s flight pattern, none of which seem particularly obvious fodder for dance. More strikingly he was a Christian. Was this difficult to incorporate, given Bangarra’s repertoire celebrating and documenting Aboriginal beliefs and stories?

He made a lot of comparisons between what he found in the Bible and his own religious ideals, Ngarrindjeri religious ideals. It was more a belief in a higher power, Rings said, who visited the land of Unaipon’s traditional community in Raukkan to learn more about his spiritual background.

She discovered a vast wetlands where freshwater and saltwater meet -“ duality again -“ and that Unaipon’s father was the first Ngarrindjeri lay preacher.

Towards the end we have Ruby Hunter saying The Lord’s Prayer in Ngarrindjeri. It’s very beautiful, it comes full circle, because later in life his feelings towards his own culture were very strong, she said.

Clan by Bangarra Dance Theatre is playing at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, from 25 June to 17 July. Phone 9250 7777.

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