SandSong, Bangarra Dance Theatre

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, June 11.

Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article contains the name of someone who has passedThe family of Ningali Lawford-Wolf has given the media permission to use her name.

 Bangarra’s last new work before SandSong was performed in 2019 and celebrated Bangarra’s 30th anniversary. It was called 30 years of sixty five thousand, a reference to the almost unimaginably long connection Australia’s First Nations people have with this land. 

All Bangarra performances are about that connection and SandSong is no exception. It is, however, exceptional. SandSong is a profound experience, enlightening and moving as it encapsulates everything Bangarra has needed to say in the past three decades.

Baden Hitchcock in Bangarra Dance Theatre’s SandSong. Photo: Daniel Boud

There is the strange but wonderful sensation of being outside of time as SandSong ranges across those thousands of years, describing a vast arc of history that doesn’t stop with today. At the end it reaches into the future by circling back on itself. Sixty-five thousand years, and more, in 80 minutes.

SandSong is subtitled Stories from the Great Sandy Desert, a geographical and social anchoring that gives the work its intense focus. It was suggested to Bangarra by Ningali Lawford-Wolf, a company member before she became a celebrated actor. Lawford-Wolf didn’t live to see it come to the stage but she is woven into its fabric.

Lawford-Wolf’s red-dust country, in the Kimberley region of the Australian north-west, is mystically evoked in Jacob Nash’s set, lit by Nick Schlieper, with the dancers dressed, brilliantly as usual, by Jennifer Irwin. Lawford-Wolf’s family’s dances are represented; their lore, customs and experiences are shared. 

SandSong starts with filmed images (David Bergman designed the striking audio visuals) that include the shocking photographs of First Nations men in chains and refer to the concept of Terra Nullius – “land belonging to no one”– used by the British to justify the seizing and colonisation of the continent. 

Glory Tuohy-Daniell, Rika Hamaguchi ad Lillian Banks in SandSong. Photo by Daniel Boud

The dance that follows is at first embedded in this land, its seasons, its weather, its rituals. A men’s dance called Marjarrka, belonging to a number of families including Lawford’s, has mysteries only those families will understand but is visually entrancing. Other sections are more easily apprehended, such as the lovely women’s kinship ceremony and depictions of hunting and gathering.  

Darkness falls when contemporary life is evoked. There is a nightmarish atmosphere as men and women are ripped away from their land and customs and forced into hard labour. As time goes on they may bend but they refuse to break and SandSong ends with the nourishment of culture, tradition and family.  

In an act of love and homage, Lawford-Wolf’s voice is embedded in Steve Francis’s stupendous score, which mixes singing, speaking and language with sounds from nature and ancient and contemporary musical modes. It sweeps along like an ever-changing but eternal river.

Rika Hamaguchi in SandSong. Photo by Daniel Boud

The choreography also flows through time and space, eloquently showing the nourishing good and the shameful bad as part of the continuum. It’s an unusual but stirring collective effort by Stephen Page, Frances Rings and the 16 marvellous dancers. 

Baden Hitchcock and Rika Hamaguchi are outstanding but it’s a tribute to Page, Bangarra’s artistic director, that the many relatively new company members look so strong and authoritative, particularly the men. Bangarra emerges from its enforced COVID-19 break in magisterial form.

Ends July 10. Canberra, July 15-17; Bendigo, July 23-24; Brisbane, August 13-21; Melbourne, August 27-September 4.

A version of this review first appeared in The Australian on June 14.

Bangarra Dance Theatre: 30 years of sixty five thousand

Bangarra Dance Theatre, Sydney Opera House, June 14

What a marvellous idea to include Jiří Kylián’s Stamping Ground in this celebration of Bangarra’s three decades of dance. It’s a terrifically exciting piece and its presence could be justified simply on artistic grounds. But why now, particularly as Bangarra has never before performed the work of a non-Indigenous choreographer? It’s a wonderful story.

The Czech master made Stamping Ground in 1983 for Nederlands Dans Theater, three years after attending a vast gathering of Australian First Nations communities on Groote Eylandt. He hadn’t simply been invited: Kylián had been a prime mover of the event. He had learned about and been deeply moved by the centrality of dance in Indigenous Australian life – the necessity, really. Dance contained history and stories, expressed spirituality and was the common language for people who spoke in many different tongues.

Bangarra - 30 Years of 65 Thousand - Stamping Ground

Rika Hamaguchi and Ryan Pearson in Stamping Ground. Photo: Daniel Boud

Well-chosen extracts from a documentary made about the Groote Eyelandt festival precede Bangarra’s performance of Stamping Ground and make abundantly clear just how profound the experience was for Kylián, an experience that “influenced each and every work he has created since then”, says Roslyn Anderson, Kylián’s Australian-born assistant choreographer. It’s hard to overestimate this tremendous gift to contemporary dance. (Anderson staged Stamping Ground for Bangarra.)

Bangarra artistic director Stephen Page had an embarrassment of riches to choose from for this program, much of it his own work, so the recognition of Kylián is graceful and timely.

So is the decision to open 30 years with Frances Rings’s Unaipon from 2004. Rings, formerly a dancer with Bangarra before turning to choreography, was recently named Bangarra’s associate artistic director; this was her first big work for the company. It explores the culture and ideas of Ngarrindjeri man David Unaipon in seven sections that allude to his work as a preacher, inventor and philosopher (he died in 1967).

There is a trance-like quality to much of the dance language as Rings places Unaipon’s thinking in a universal context. There is nothing more lovely than its night-sky opening, in which we hear Unaipon’s suggestion that the source of life is to be found “in another world – yet we are here”. Otherworldliness permeates Uniapon. A section based on string games is grounded in the reality of traditional Ngarrindjeri life but abstracted into something grand and mysterious, as is Rings’s depiction of the four winds, representing knowledge of the land. Swirling bodies evoke Unaipon’s interest in the laws of motion and rapt calmness his Christian faith.

Bangarra - 30 Years of 65 Thousand - Unaipon

Tyrel Dulvarie as Tolkami (West Wind) in Unaipon. Photo: Daniel Boud

The music, lush with language and song, comes chiefly from the hand of David Page. He died in 2016 but his wonderful score lives on. The costumes by Jennifer Irwin, a long-time Bangarra collaborator, are a joy to revisit, as is Peter England’s set and Nick Schlieper’s lighting.

Stamping Ground opens the second half of the program and is pure joy. Each of the six dancers is introduced with a silent solo and then the piece heads into exhilarating, hard and fast duos and trios to a percussion work by Carlos Chávez. It’s forceful, witty and 100 per cent Kylián but with touches of the inspiration – not imitation, he stresses – the choreographer is indebted to. The alert use of head, eyes and neck are particularly notable, as are the wonderfully springy, agile knees. The Bangarra cast dances Stamping Ground with splendidly earthy vigour  and makes it their own.

The program ends satisfyingly with To Make Fire, a blending of sections from earlier Bangarra works. The short excerpt from Stephen Page’s Mathinna refers to colonisation and exploitation. It is followed by dances from Elma Kris’s lovely About, which springs from Torres Strait Island culture. The third element, Clan, draws from several works, ending with a ravishingly beautiful section called Hope from 2002.

Photography Lisa Tomasetti-74

The Bangarra ensemble in To Make Fire. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

It’s a big night for the full ensemble of 16 and not all can be mentioned, but there were standout performances from Baden Hitchcock and Ryan Pearson (Stamping Ground) and Tyrel Dulvarie (Stamping Ground and Unaipon). Tara Gower, Rika Hamaguchi and Ella Havelka completed the Stamping Ground cast with distinction.

30 years is also a tribute to many outstanding contributors to Bangarra’s look and sound, including the distinguished designer Jacob Nash and composer Steve Francis. It’s a special evening.

Ends in Sydney July 13. Then Canberra, July 18-20; Perth, July 31-August 3; Darwin, August 17; Brisbane, August 23-31; Melbourne, September 5-14; Adelaide, September 19-21; Hobart October 3-5.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on June 17.

Dark Emu, Bangarra Dance Theatre

Sydney Opera House, June 16.

Bangarra Dance Theatre, 30 years old next year, has spent its existence opening doors to this country’s ancient past. The audience – a wildly enthusiastic one each time I’ve attended during those three decades – has its knowledge of our First Nations history and culture enlarged on every occasion.

I think of artistic director Stephen Page’s moving series of portraits in dance, Mathinna (2008), Patyegarang (2014), Bennelong (2017) and his brilliantly surreal one-act homage to artist Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, Nyapanyapa (2016). Unforgettable too are Page’s Skin (2000) and Frances Rings’s X300 (2007), a searing critique of the Maralinga atomic tests, and Unaipon (2004), which brought to vibrant life the man on the $50 note.

Dark Emu also offers fresh, welcome insights into Aboriginal experience and custom, although with less force.

Dark Emu - Bangarra

Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Dark Emu. Photo: Daniel Boud

As designed by Jacob Nash (set), Jennifer Irwin (costumes) and Sian James-Holland (lights), the production looks gorgeous: whenever was that not the case with Bangarra? Its impact, however, is blunted by too much sameness in the dance language and with a structure that gives everything the same weight.

The reason is undoubtedly that Dark Emu’s choreography is credited to Page, company member Daniel Riley, former member Yolande Brown and the Bangarra dancers. That’s a lot of cooks. True, the wonderful Ochres (1994; revived 2015) also had three choreographers but lightning hasn’t struck twice. It’s also noticeable that, with a significant amount of new, young blood in the ranks, Bangarra’s ensemble isn’t quite as sharp as at other times in its history.

Dark Emu is based on Bruce Pascoe’s book of the same name and challenges the widely accepted image of the hunter-gathers who roved the continent for millennia before the Brits arrived to teach them a thing or two. Dark Emu tells – or at least aims to tell – another story, one of people who knew how to tend and protect their land and were at one with it.

Dark Emu - Bangarra

Bangarra Dance Theatre in Dark Emu. Photo: Daniel Boud

The work begins strongly with dancers rising from the ground and raising their arms. Wavy concentric circles, radiant blue against a black background, dwarf the men and women. They may be supplicating, calling to spirits for guidance. Perhaps they’re paying homage to the awe-inspiring canopy of stars and dark matter above, acknowledging that an immense and immensely powerful universe surrounds our small blue planet and protects it. It may be both. The image resonates.

So too does Steve Francis’s intense, multi-layered score with its thunder and rain, incorporation of Indigenous instruments, song, spoken word, evocation of insects and much more.

Nevertheless, Dark Emu too often becomes too opaque. Despite the welcome participation of a dramaturg, Alana Valentine, references are so abstracted as to be unclear or else too briefly explored. The program contains a beautiful note from artistic director Stephen Page and comments from Brown, Riley and others that are extremely helpful, but the work needs to speak more cogently for itself.

Dark Emu’s most emphatic point is one that’s never far from Bangarra’s mind. Spiritual practices, poetically evoked, are inextricably linked with everyday activities. Then, inevitably, the colonisers come and trample on this delicately poised existence. That’s a message no one could fail to read.

Dark Emu - Bangarra

Beau Dean Riley Smith, centre, in Dark Emu. Photo: Daniel Boud

The charismatic Beau Dean Riley Smith makes a magnetic appearance near the end of Dark Emu, seen in the context of invasion but also as a figure of continuity and resilience. His poignant dance is memorable but points up the lack of big individual moments earlier. Time and again the deliberate concentration on swirling, tumbling groups flattens and distances Dark Emu.

Just as something starts to grab the imagination there’s a brisk trot on to the next idea. Concepts of great moment and emotional possibility are short-changed. There are tantalising glimpses of some of Bangarra’s most individual dancers – among them Elma Kris, as always; Yolanda Lowatta, who’s only been with Bangarra since 2015 but is already a star – but then they disappear.

Ends in Sydney July 14. Canberra, July 26-28; Perth, August 2-5; Brisbane August 24-September 1; Melbourne September 6-15.

Heart and soul

Sydney Opera House, June 11

IN Frances Rings’s Sheoak, her new work for Bangarra Dance Theatre, there is a greatly touching section for two women, on the Sydney opening night danced by Elma Kris and Yolanda Lowatta. The duo is one of protection, nurturing and teaching, and was enriched immeasurably by Kris’s radiant maturity and Lowatta’s shiny youth. Kris, now 43, is one of the longest-serving members of the Bangarra company while Lowatta, 23, is still a trainee, although a future in dance looks very secure indeed. She was awarded the 2015 Russell Page Fellowship and catches the eye effortlessly on stage.

But Lowatta is right at the beginning of her journey. Kris has travelled a long way from her earliest days with Bangarra as a rather shy figure whose world seemed to hold secrets we’d never learn. She was always intriguing because of that but you had to seek her out on stage. Now she is in the full flowering of her artistry. She is still a very modest performer, never appearing to seek the spotlight, but transmits a dance’s purpose with the greatest clarity.

Elma Kris and company in Sheoak. Photo: Jhuny Boy Borja

Elma Kris and company in Sheoak. Photo: Jhuny Boy Borja

Kris has never been the most obviously polished dancer in Bangarra’s ranks but she has qualities that transcend technical finish. She has heart and soul. She can take you to the realm most important to Bangarra – an understanding of traditional Indigenous culture.

As well as anchoring the ancient mysteries of Sheoak, Kris had a central role in I.B.I.S., the here-and-now work that gets the lore double bill off to a rollicking start. Who would have thought that going down to the shop to stock up on food could be so much fun? I.B.I.S. is named after a Queensland Government statutory body – Islanders Board of Industry & Service – that operates stores in the Torres Strait. One of its responsibilities (I got this from a 2013 report) is to “provide healthy food choices at lowest possible prices”.

With the lightest of touches, co-choreographers Deborah Brown and Waangenga Blanco remind us that people (and not only Indigenous people) are increasingly removed from their own food gathering. Want some crayfish? It comes out of the freezer. (The freezer also provides some welcome cooling air for a group of exceptionally sinous shoppers.)

I.B.I.S. starts with a delightful gathering of friends amongst the shelves, the women in pretty flowery frocks (longtime Bangarra associate Jennifer Irwin created all the terrific costumes for this program) and the men full of high spirits. There’s singing, horsing about and some business with shopping baskets, and then things start getting surreal as turtles and crayfish come to life with sinuous grace and flickering legs. The fantastical then gives way to the traditional as the company performs vibrant stamping dances.

Wanneer Blanco, Yolanda Lowatta and Tara Gower in I.B.I.S. Photo: Jeff Tan

Waangenga Blanco, Yolanda Lowatta and Tara Gower in I.B.I.S. Photo: Jeff Tan

I.B.I.S. is a first work from Brown and Blanco and it’s a great success. The theme of change in practices and the environment is delivered with much humour and vitality. Bangarra doesn’t have a huge ensemble so Brown and Blanco didn’t get the night off work to enjoy I.B.I.S. from the auditorium. They both looked terrific, as did the whole company.

Sheoak is a serious, dramatically beautiful response to timeless imperatives. As the work starts a disintegrating mass of bodies shows the fracturing of an old way of life but essential parts remain through troubled times and in renewal. The tree is re-imagined as fragments in a series of vignettes touching on loss and recovery. The meaning is at times elusive but the atmospherics powerful. Jacob Nash designed both works with Karen Norris on lighting. As ever, it is hard to think of dance works that consistently look as ravishing as Bangarra’s. David Page composed for Sheoak and Steve Francis wrote the I.B.I.S. score, both of them using Indigenous language as an integral aspect of music and meaning.

Sydney until July 4. Canberra, July 9-11; Wollongong, July 23-25; Brisbane, August 7-15; Melbourne, August 28-September 5.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on June 15.