SandSong: Stories from the Great Sandy Desert
Bangarra Dance Theatre
Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Reviewed June 11
Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article contains the name of someone who has passed. The family of Ningali Lawford-Wolf has given the media permission to use her name.
The premiere of Bangarra Dance Theatre’s new production SandSong: Stories from the Great Sandy Desert has been keenly anticipated by many dance lovers for some time. It was originally scheduled to premiere in 2020 but the widespread cancellation of performances due to the pandemic meant it had to be postponed. In fact, this is Bangarra’s first new mainstage work in three years, and I couldn’t help noticing how many relatively new dancers now make up their current roster of dancers. For while generational change is inevitable in any organisation, it is even more noticeable amongst professional dancers given their careers are often quite short. The more recent recruits danced well, but I did miss seeing the depth of maturity, nuance and stagecraft that those more experienced dancers bring, in particular the presence of Elma Kris.
This idea of missing the maturity and wisdom of one’s elders is sadly quite fitting given the initial genesis for this work came from an artist, activist and long-time associate of Bangarra – proud Wangkatjungka woman Ningali Lawford-Wolf. Aside from her association with Bangarra, readers may know her from acting roles in movies like Rabbit-Proof Fence, Bran Nue Dae and Last Cab to Darwin. Unfortunately, she passed away too soon in 2019, but SandSong honours her legacy, her family and the histories and stories of the Kimberley and Great Sandy Desert regions.
Choreographed jointly by Stephen Page, Frances Rings and the dancers themselves, SandSong runs for 80 minutes without interval. In terms of music, set and costume design all the usual collaborators (composer Steve Francis, set Jacob Nash and costume Jennifer Irwin) have created the imaginatively dreamlike visual and aural elements that Bangarra Dance Theatre’s productions are known for. A special shoutout here to Jacob Nash for the shimmering fabric backdrop that captured the strikingly red hues and textural weathered lines of Australia’s desert regions.
SandSong is loosely structured into four acts. The first two are set prior to the colonisation of the Kimberley region, touching on traditional life, ceremonies and rituals. The second section ends on an ominous note, feeding into the third act which brings white settlement, displacement and forced labour/slavery for the Kimberley’s traditional owners. However, hope returns as the third section ends with a piece that refers to the oppressed indigenous people gathering strength to "walk off" from exploitative conditions at the cattle stations. This section contains some of the most interesting choreographic shapes and structures of the whole work as two dancers in aerial harnesses (Lilian Banks and Rikki Mason) walk up the backs of their dancer colleagues (these backs forming a graduated staircase) from which they fall, swooping and swinging in gentle arcs over the stage floor.
The fourth act begins with dancer Baden Hitchcock as a young boy (symbolising the tragedy of so many broken and shattered lives) ready to explode with the weight of intergenerational trauma until guided to healing by his sister (played by Rika Hamaguchi) and the spirits of his ancestors. The remainder of the fourth act brings together the whole cast in a reconnection to country and family that allows them to begin to rebuild their communities and lives in a post-colonial Australia.
In comparison to previous Bangarra mainstage productions, SandSong utilises several different techniques in addition to the expressive contemporary/indigenous dance that is their hallmark. This includes the use of a short film right at the beginning, before the dancers appear, that contains historical text and newsreel footage highlighting previous and ongoing injustices to First Nations people. It also includes the aerial work (for which Legs on the Wall Director Joshua Thomson was credited as Aerial Movement Consultant) and the integration of three traditional dances into the larger production.
On the plus side SandSong is an ambitious work, and you can see how much research and thought has gone into it. However, the transitions from one section to another sometimes felt a bit disjointed. Despite familiarising myself with the detailed synopsis prior to watching, I still wasn’t always sure as to which section of the work I was watching at various points. Some sections were easier to make sense of than others and there wasn’t always a clear delineation between different acts.
On opening night standout performances came from dancers including Beau Dean Riley Smith, Lilian Banks and Rika Hamaguchi. Baden Hitchcock captured the pent-up frustration of the young boy with clarity and Lilian Banks and Rikki Mason navigated the significant challenges of aerial work with grace and strength. Daniel Mateo, Courtney Radford and Kiarn Doyle all show considerable promise.
SandSong is touring Canberra, Bendigo, Brisbane and Melbourne July-September and is definitely worth seeing: https://www.bangarra.com.au.
- GERALDINE HIGGINSON
Pictured above are the Bangarra company dancers.