Updated: May 15
Pat Mullen, POV Magazine, 3 May, 2021
Further proof that Canadian arts can learn a lot from their Australian counterparts can be seen in Firestarter – The Story of Bangarra. This striking dance doc is a portrait of the internationally acclaimed Bangarra Dance Theatre and the three brothers — David, Russell, and Stephen Page — who fuelled the company’s success. Moreover, it’s an invigorating study of the road to reconciliation by supporting Indigenous communities through the arts and giving them a platform to share their heritage and culture.
Firestarter is the story of the Page brothers’ heritage (they’re descendants of the Nunukul people and the Munaldjali clan of the Yugambeh Nation) as well as Australia’s own complicated history with colonialism and reconciliation.
The Bangarra Dance Theatre is famous for its performances that drawn upon stories, themes, and movements rooted in Indigenous cultures and fuse them with contemporary flavours. Their work offers a meeting place between the old world and the new on the stage. It creates space for Indigenous artists to be empowered and to celebrate their identities after years of oppression.
The film admittedly struggles with a messy first act as it tries to recap the entire history of colonialism in Australia in 20 minutes. Dancers, academics, and Indigenous commentators reflect upon Australian’s blood quantum system that sought to “breed out the Black,” as one talking head puts it.
Footage of protests, demonstrations, and counter-demonstrations fly by at breakneck speed, but Firestarter starts to land successfully after a shaky jump when Stephen Page wows the art scene with his fast moves in the late ‘80s. Stephen becomes the artistic director of Bangarra in 1991, but the Page brothers are a package deal—and too good as a trio to break up. History is made as they do their part to lead Australian into a new era for reconciliation through the performing arts.
Director Wayne Blair, who is of Batjala, Mununjail and Wake Waka descent, and Nel Minchin guide the story of the Bangarra Dance Theatre’s ascent with propulsive vision. The film takes a mostly chronological journey through the company’s key performances, which include Bush (2003); Fire (2009); Spear (2015), a stunning dramatic feature film that TIFF audiences might recognize; and Bennelong (2017), the latter of which delivers the most exquisite footage to the documentary. The company hit its stride before Bennelong, but the performance looks like and is widely considered Bangarra’s most fully realised piece.
Performers from the company share their experiences about becoming empowered through dance and relishing the chance to celebrate their culture in ways that their parents and grandparents never could. Firestarter strikingly contrasts the dancers’ testimonials with the Bangarra performances, intersecting the dance footage with archival images highlighting the racism that continued to pervade society.
This contrast marks the history of reconciliation as a new awakening that’s only beginning. Firestarter is a fine companion piece to the equally stirring dance doc Ailey, which recounts choreographer Alvin Ailey’s significant contribution to American dance by using the stage as a site of emancipation for Black stories. The world stage brings its own pressures and contradiction, but provides valuable opportunities for visibility, representation, and changing a narrative through the performing arts.
The ghosts of the past echo throughout the Page brothers’ history as Firestarter looks at the different ways that the three brothers wrestled with trauma and the weight of forging sparks for reconciliation on the world stage. As the surviving member of the family, Stephen carries the torch laudably in the film. He knows his talking points and illuminates Bangarra’s significance succinctly so that the power of dance can transport audiences through this story.
Blair, who previously collaborated with Page on the 2012 hit The Sapphires, and Minchin inject the film with energising verve and rhythm. The quickly cut and sumptuously shot doc evokes the power of dance in its own movement. Firestarter carries the momentum of the Bangarra Dance Theatre and invites audiences to take the next steps.
Firestarter – The Story of Bangarra premieres at Hot Docs 2021.