The Bennelong of Bangarra Dance Theatre tells a life story in music and dance

Composer Steve Francis’ rating for Bennelong, the latest job from Bangarra Dance Theatre, owes a small debt to a obscure, long-dead Welsh harpist.

Were it not for the quick thinking of Edward Jones, Francis clarifies, an outstanding occasion could have been lost to us.

Yolanda Lowatta and Kaine Sultan-Babij prepare for Bangarra Dance Theatre's 'Bennelong'.
Yolanda Lowatta and Kaine Sultan-Babij prepare for Bangarra Dance Theatre’s ‘Bennelong’.   Photo: Janie Barrett

It was Edwards who transcribed a traditional tune sung by two Aboriginal warriors, Bennelong and Yemmerrawanne, at William Waterhouse’s London house. Waterhouse was Lieutenant Henry Waterhouse, who arrived at Sydney Cove with the First Fleet aboard HMS Sirius’ father.

“We do not know exactly what Bennelong was singing because the words have been written down phonetically but at least we know what it seemed just like melodically,” says Francis, who’s incorporated Edwards’ transcription at the score for Bennelong, the Stephen Page-choreographed story of the life of the warrior, ambassador and clan leader.

Francis is one of the composers in Australia’s dance and theater scene. Sydney Theatre Company, Belvoir, Griffin along with Bell Shakespeare audiences have all experienced his job but it was his artistic affiliation with Bangarra along with Stephen Page along with also his brother composer David Page that is the strongest and longest lasting.

“I met with Stephen and David something like 20 years ago,” Francis says. “Dealing with Bangarra was how I got to composing for the theater. The very first ever play I did was Leah Purcell’s Box the Pony, and that just came about because I met Leah through David. That led to working with David on Page 8, his one-man show at Belvoir and through that, Belvoir offered me more sound design work. Eventually I moved into composing.”

Last year David Page expired. His effect on Bangarra and about Francis is profound.

“David actually produced a great genre in what he did for Bangarra,” Francis says. “How he blended contemporary music with traditional tunes and instruments has been quite influential for folks like me, and Paul Mac, and also for many others he collaborated with. His influence is always that when I compose for Bangarra.”

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Francis’ rating for Bennelong is one of the most complicated and ambitious the composer has produced. The crowd will hear diverse elements, ranging from Haydn’s Surprise Symphony (composed the year before Bennelong went to London) to captured voices from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, a salty old sea shanty, fragments of Waltzing Matilda and a poetic celebrity spoken by actor and Cleverman celebrity Hunter Page-Lochard.

Scoring for dance is different from composing for the theater, says Francis. “There is no text or celebrities’ voices you’ll be able to hide behind,” he states. “But in addition, it is rather liberating to get a composer. I follow my gut, could be experimental and be diverse. At Bennelong, each chapter has some thing worthy or melodic that is quite individual to it but at exactly the identical time, it all must feel as a part of the same show.”

Francis’ score needs the 18 dancers of Bangarra to sing. It isn’t an easy request, states cast member Tara Gower. “Not everyone felt convinced, largely because we use our breath quite differently when we are moving,” she states. “We needed to understand how to breathe for moving and singing in exactly the identical time.”

Some of speech words and the vocals are from Murawi man Matthew Doyle while other elements of poetry and text have been composed by playwright and dramaturg Alana Valentine.

Music manager Iain Grandage assisted the dancers find their voice. “He helped us operate on a chant that is so strong,” Gower says. “It is really going to hit on the audience like flourish! People will be pumped out.”

Bennelong is on in the Sydney Opera House from June 29 and in Arts Centre Melbourne September 7 to 16.