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 passed. The 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.
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.
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.
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.