The Spirit of Bennelong

Recently landed: The Spirit of Bennelong, Gracia's written response to Bangarra Dance Theatre’s new work, for Fjord Review

I lie low. I nestle in the soil. Are you a fighter? A collaborator? A victim? A survivor? An idealist? A realist? Some days I feel like I am Bennelong. I am Bennelong.

At first impression, Stephen Page’s new work Bennelong is about the history and legacy of Woollarawarre Bennelong (c. 1764–1813), the man who carries five names (also Baneelon, Wogultrowey, Wolarrabarrey, Boinba, Bundebunda). Before a large suspended ring, evocative of a smoking ceremony (sensitively, economically designed by Jacob Nash), ‘The Birth of Bennelong’ is told. The women’s circle, all loose with its collective weight directed towards the floor, the men’s, by comparison, pointed, angular, and elevated. To know the story: read the bodies. Every surface, a canvas, a means of unbroken communication. With native plants in hand, burning to ward off bad spirits, the hardest terrain is life giving.

A Wangul man of the Eora Nation people, Bennelong lived during the European settlement/invasion in 1788. He was captured and shackled in 1789, along with a Cadigal man, Colebee, on Governor Arthur Phillip’s orders by Lieutenant William Bradley at Manly Cove. Lieutenant Bradly wrote of the men’s abduction as being “by far the most unpleasant service I was ever ordered to Execute…. [The] crying & screaming of the women and children together with the situation of the two miserable wretches in our possession was really a most distressing scene; they were much terrified.” Two randomly selected go-betweens to assist with the assimilation process, Colebee escaped, while Bennelong remained in the colony. In frock coats from the New World, Bennelong would later accompany Governor Phillip to London (1792–95), with Wangul man, Yemmerawanye, and four “lively and healthy” kangaroos [Lloyd’s Evening Post, 1793].

Bangarra Dance Theatre's Bennelong (image credit: Vishal Pandey)