It's not meant as an ironic comment, but it certainly comes off that way. As the artistic director of Bangarra, the successful Australian dance troupe, Page for more than a decade has been the man charged with nurturing the culture of native Australians. And he accepts the responsibility.
"You become the caretakers of the culture," he said in a phone interview. "You don't bastardize it. We can't. ... I'm into nurturing."
That doesn't mean people who attend Bangarra Dance Theatre's show on Saturday at St. Ambrose's Galvin Fine Arts Center should expect an anthropological performance that honors a dead culture. The Aborigines are very much alive in the modern age, and Page's work blends traditional and sacred rituals with contemporary politics and modern-dance motifs. The artistic director describes the performance as "very theatrical, cinematic."
Much of Page's effort is spent "maintaining the integrity of the culture," he said. "The modern dance is secondary. Cultural maintenance takes a lot of energy." In that way, Page is much more than simply a choreographer and director. "It's not like I just say, 'Point your feet.'"
Bangarra's current tour is its first extensive visit to the United States. The work the group is performing - called Corroboree - is what Page describes as a "best-of program, all our works put into one journey." It is meant as an introduction, because most people in this country have never seen Aboriginal dance and don't know much (if anything) about native Australian culture. "It's really celebrating the first people of a country," Page said.
Corroboree begins and ends with works meant to unify - the dancers are covered in white clay to protect them on a spiritual journey in the closing "White" - and in between it covers subjects as diverse as the relationship between Aboriginal women and the land; a young man's initiation ceremony; and nuclear war ("Toxic").
Those descriptions might make the program sound like a hodgepodge, but its fractured nature in some ways reflects a larger intent: "In our production," Page said, "we cultivate many energies into one energy."
And Page is known for fusing disparate elements into a whole. In a recent article, The New York Times lauded the director's staging of the production Rites, in which ballet dancers shared the stage with Bangarra, and noted that the Australian troupe effectively transports traditional dances and rites to the theatre.
Bangarra has been in the United States for five weeks, performing mostly in major metro areas in the northeast. Page said that audiences have been receptive, particularly in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. "Art's a great medicine," he said. "People are able to be much more focused, because they're mourning. They're listening."
And it's important that the story is heard. Like Native Americans and black South Africans, many Aboriginal Australians were killed by European colonists. And the Aborigines are still treated like second-class citizens. They make up only 2 percent of the Australian population, and the country's government offers token programs for cultural organizations.
Page seems to see his role as bringing Aboriginal culture to a wider audience, in Australia and around the world. "We try to break down that mainstream door and wall," he said.
Page will turn 36 in December, and he talks of retirement. What he means, though, is that he'll step back. He is scheduled to direct a 12-day festival in Australia in 2004 and plans to make his first feature film in 2005. Even the film project will likely involve Bangarra.
After that, though, he plans to withdraw, and let those he's nurtured tend to the culture. "I'm trying to get them into their own professional development," he said of his Bangarra dancers. And he has no problem passing the baton to the next generation. "My spirit will always be there," he said.
Pages envisions big things for Bangarra, but he also sees his role as building a foundation. "We're going to be an empire," he said, "but I'm not going to do it all."
Bangarra will perform at 7:30 p.m. at the Galvin Fine Arts Center. Tickets are $15 for adults and are available by calling (563)333-6251.
Also at Galvin on Saturday will be an opening reception for an exhibit of paintings by Kristin Quinn at the Morrissey Gallery. The reception will be held from 6 to 7:30 p.m., and the exhibit will run through December 3.