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.