Dancing with Strangers is named after a historical study by Australian academic Inga Clendinnen. In her book of the same name, Clendinnen details accounts of first contact between the local indigenous communities who lived around Sydney harbour and the First Fleet upon its arrival in Port Jackson in January 1788. In these remarkable accounts, the local peoples spontaneously greeted the British with acts of impulsive song and dance. Clendinnen writes:
“In January 1788 the First Fleet arrived in New South Wales and a thousand British men and women encountered the people who would be their new neighbours—the beach nomads of Australia. ‘These people mixed with ours,’ wrote a British observer soon after landfall, ‘and all hands danced together’”.
This piece is largely about these joyful and unfettered exchanges of dance in those first meetings. In the outer sections of this single-movement quartet, we hear much revelry and celebratory dancing.
A central, contemplative section then takes the focus from the physical realm to the interior. I gradually began to think of this section as taking us inside the cabin and the mind of Captain Arthur Phillip, commander of the first fleet. This seemed irresistible, since the string quartet is an eighteenth century, Enlightenment invention. Arthur Philip, very much an archetypal figure of the Enlightenment, greeted such meetings of song and dance with great optimism, as he sought to gain the confidence and trust of the locals. He also fell victim to the flaws of his time in thinking that British ways were inherently superior to the local “savages” and paid dearly for not learning more from the locals. The central section of the quartet, therefore, takes us through a dream-like passage where Arthur Philip perhaps imagines great opportunities for a new future. However, this optimism is interrupted by a more disturbing return to the opening dance figures, which foreshadow a much more alarming and violent future to come.
The violence of this vision quickly vanishes as the dancing starts up once more, this time with hints of a fumbling waltz being danced. The waltz catapults the musical material into a feverishly vigorous section which gradually climbs towards the high registers of all the instruments, followed by an energetic climax.
As well as being about the historical acts of dance which took place in the summer of 1788, this piece is also about the act of a cultural dance between the descendants of indigenous Australians and the descendants of those who came to the shores of Australia for years after. Long may the dancing continue.