Tuesday, May 28, 2024


Bangarra Dance Theatre
Choreographers: Stephen Page, Frances Rings
Sydney Opera House
June 10 – July 10, 2021

SandSong: Stories from the Great Sandy Desert is Bangarra Dance Theatre’s first new full-length work for three years, and in keeping with their unique signature style it combines authentic storytelling, superb technique and a powerfully emotive performance.

The stories that come to the stage in SandSong come from the Kimberley region and have been sourced from a First Nations culture that has existed for 60,000 years in a land that is almost two million years old. These remote communities underwent some of the darkest moments in Australia’s history as governments blundered their way through “native affairs” policies and exploitative individuals or companies took control of the land.

Consequently, the performance begins by delivering a shock – harsh sounds and a grim dark backdrop – to its comfortably seated audience. For a few minutes they experience a sense of displacement and disruption undergone on a massive scale by people abruptly uprooted from a way of life that had sustained them and the land for thousands of years. Uncomfortable facts are set before us – a compulsory truth-seeing.

In seconds, we are taken back into that dream world we have anticipated. The backdrop reflects the gold of the sun, the red of the desert dust and the rolling motion of the full Bangarra ensemble – and the circle inscribed beneath their feet – invoke the cycle of unfolding seasons that sustained life. A shy young woman and an uncertain young man are inducted into their respective roles and their place affirmed: a traditional dance for women images the ritual of providing, the man’s traditional dance tells a story of rightful possession of the totem or keeping order.

This lovely image of an established way of life carefully calibrated to maintain a balance between people and land is threatened. The women dance, representing coolamons looking to be filled but food is scarce and their tentative gestures and movements suggest fragility. The suggestion of disaster is strengthened by the burning bundles of spinifex carried by the men who seem to be concerned about the health of the land, and the elders, sensing catastrophe, begin to leave.

That catastrophe is the arrogance, ignorance and greed of the invaders. A painful scene shows the auction of men, and their heavy chains and struggling movements convey the servitude, the debasement and grief of all the displaced. The living seasonal cycle has been replaced by a relentless and deathly cycle of work – with barely enough rations – but the land itself will rescue them from the dark times. The welcome voice of Vincent Lingiari is heard, a voice that reminds them that the land is their land, and that they want to live on it their way.

Many of the young, growing up without culture, fall into despair. Nevertheless, in a touching interlude, a lost young man can still be reconnected with the code of life handed down through his ancestors and is restored by the spirit of the land, who ritually and lovingly cleanses and heals him. Pride reawakened, a lost and abused people reunite and revive. Rituals can be recovered as tenderly conveyed in the women’s traditional potato dance, and painting Country restores them to homeland, community and family.

In the ultimate scene the ensemble comes together to affirm their belonging, and separating into groups they fold gracefully into each other, serene and breathing in accord with the spirit of their land. We are left with the conviction that the ancient knowledge of People and Country can be dispersed, but it can never be lost. SandSong itself is living proof, created by Bangarra in consultation with Wangkatjungka and Walmajarri Elders and Cultural Knowledge Holders from the Kimberley and Great Sandy Desert regions.

The choreography of SandSong is always mesmerising, the visualisation by turns delicate, haunting, violent or terrifying, and the dancers’ flexibility, dedication and sensitivity almost beyond imagining. Bangarra’s mission, it seems, is truth-telling and their chosen way of telling it guarantees that audiences both national and international will receive it gratefully.



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