During the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, one of the most impressive discoveries came from the premiere of Stephen Page‘s Spear, a dazzling fusion of cinema and dance. Inspired by the work of Page’s own dance company the Bangarra Dance Theatre, it told a coming-of-age story of an aboriginal boy through the traditional “walkabout” rite of passage. On the surface, the film’s creative brilliance and social relevance was plain to see. Those unfamiliar with the Bangarra Dance Theatre, however, would have likely been unaware of the company’s monumental impact on Australian society. Now, Wayne Blair and Nel Minchin’s documentary Firestarter offers a perfect companion piece to understand the importance of Bangarra Dance Theatre to Australia’s indigenous people.
Firestarter traces the origins of Bangarra Dance Theatre to a talented trio of brothers – Russell, David and Stephen Page. Each imbued with unique artistic gifts (dance, composing, creative direction), their interest in the arts was nurtured under humble beginnings in a large suburban household. When they received the opportunity to join the National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association and hone their skills, this upstart institution founded in 1975 sparked a renewed sense of pride in their heritage and culture. Over the coming the decades, these young men would help to form the successful Bangarra Dance Theatre, which became an empowering symbol of a people and culture that had been systematically oppressed for generations.
That oppression isn’t immediately clear in the early scenes of Firestarter, as candid home videos and behind the scenes footage highlights the innocence of the three brothers’ childhood and later, their passion for a greater movement of indigenous pride. Indeed, Firestarter assembles a treasure trove of archival footage that showcases the raw talent of the dancers and their subsequent realization of a respected indigenous dance company. And through interviews with members, soul-searching journeys to rural villages and recorded performances, the film gives us an understanding and appreciation for the meaning and technique behind this expressive style of dance.
The revelations naturally lead towards the tensions underpinning Bangarra Dance Theatre, including questions of authenticity. More significantly, they examine the sociopolitical context that informs the art form. Indeed, while the company began to soar to unprecedented heights like the global stage of the Summer 2020 Olympic Opening Ceremony, the inter-generational trauma of colonialism manifests itself both figuratively through the art’s themes and more literally, through unbelievable tragedies.
Indeed, like many other revolutionary artforms, Bangarra Dance Theatre was borne out of struggle. As interviewees recall the dehumanization of the blackfella – as Australia’s indigenous people often call themselves – Firestarter makes a poignant connection to the painful colonial legacy common throughout the African diaspora. Through Stephen Page’s awe-inspiring work ethic and artistry, however, it also stands as a testament to the resilience and beauty of the human spirit.