It was a lot to do with focus.
Russell Page was conjuring into words his first encounter with traditional dance, especially from the Yirrkala in East Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia.
When I saw that and the fact that they landed without landing, how they didn’t touch the ground it was just amazing, I was like, ‘that’s it, I’m gonna be a dancer’.
Russell trained at NAISDA College before touring with One Extra Dance Company. In 1991 he joined his brothers David and Stephen in founding Bangarra Dance Theatre, dancing leads in Praying Mantis Dreaming, Ninni, Ochres and Fish. And in all of those first creations the audience saw it – a weight that could fly, a weight that dropped from his limbs to the stage beneath him. And when he landed, he was the earth. He became the speck of earth that would dissolve into the land.
In all his onstage roles it was his creative freedom that was both mesmerising and breathtaking to both his colleagues and audiences alike. ‘His gift’, one dancer said, ‘was to be limitless. He was like a coiled, soft muscle – squatted on the ground and then suspended high, hovering, in air.'
Watching him move – watching him wriggle and jump and swivel and reach –onlookers were struck by the effort that allowed him to become nothing but the bird or snake or figure he was one with. And like all mob who watch traditional dance he showed the pain in the scars – the joy of revelation of culture in dance, the ache of not having that tradition in his own body and spirit. The beauty of culture that has been lost, stolen and denied. He worked always to purge the regret and reclaim living culture onstage.
Russell described it as the collective dreaming:
I think we have a collective dreaming that’s the passing down of what we have to the next generation. That’s my dream. I want for my children what I didn’t have when I was growing up, an understanding of generation and passing down.
He created and performed at the 1997 Venice Biennale. He choreographed and performed with the bands Jump Back Jack, Jacky Orzasky and Drum Nutz. He choreographed for Bruce Beresford’s Paradise Road.He appeared in the Opening and Closing ceremonies of the 2000 Olympic Games, the opening ceremony of the Olympic Arts Festival. He received acclaim and inspired awe when he danced in Corroboree.
Russell Page embodied the courage and concentrated power of gentle masculinity, he incarnated a vulnerability that was mesmerising. In collaboration with his brothers Stephen and David, those two who came from the same womb, who shared the same blood and listened to the same heartbeat, the same pulse before birth, he physicalised new contemporary song lines of a wholly original form and creation in contemporary Australian dance.
On stage he was described by his fellow dancers as having an almost eerie concentration, a kind of possession, an unbecoming human and becoming spirit so pure, so clear, so profoundly gifted as to be both shocking and inspiring.
I’m just another stone in the path that’s been laid for thousands of years.
But if Russell Page was a stone he was the most cherished of stones. A river stone rolled smooth by the rough and tumble of his inner struggles, a pebble polished by the work and commitment and discipline of his dancing, a rock of a man on which one of Australia’s most startling and eloquent performing arts companies was built. A foundation stone.
He was nominated as best actor at the Tulliwali Awards in 2002, appearing in the films Kick, the opera Black River, as well as Poison, Bedevil, Wanem Time and Billie’s Holiday. In 1999 he performed for the Australian Dance Theatre in Adelaide.
When I came in contact with traditional people I found the inner essence of dance. I guess I always danced from the outside, when it was dancing to Michael Jackson or James Brown at home, but when I first came in contact with traditional dance the feeling was pretty amazing.
To watch him reach his hand into the air and curl and twine and spiral his fingers was an act of delicacy unparalleled in grace.
To watch his limbs and legs curve and spin with his fellow dancers was to bear witness to the truth of his deep Nunukul/Munaldjali ancestry alive in the present.
I believe that we are old spirits.
And in Russell, in his dancing, the old spirit was given life and flesh and love.
Vale Russell Page 1968 – 2002.