SandSong: Stories from the Great Sandy Desert | Bangarra Dance Theatre

Image by Daniel Boud

The first new full-length work from Bangarra in three years tells the stories and knowledge of the Wangkatjungka and Walmajarri people from the Kimberley and Great Sandy Desert regions. The combination of traditional dances, interpretations of true stories, and exploration of colonisation in SandSong are performed in honour of cultural collaborator and Wangkatjungka woman Ningali Josie Lawford-Wolf.

The four-act performance opened with a bold contextualising video projection designed by David Bergman that used archival footage of Aboriginal people in missions and chained together as prisoners with recordings of politicians speaking overtop and images of the Australian landscape. The black and white glitchy imagery was threatening and the droning soundtrack foreshadowed the grim colonial narrative explored later in the production. The four acts moved through seasons and reflected the theme of change from the cold dry season of “Makurra” or the hot dry season of “Parranga” to the wet season of “Yitilal”. In the middle was the severing season of “Kartiya”, meaning “white person” in Walmajarri language. Thus, the structure of SandSong incorporated colonisation; rolling forward into the future and demonstrating the continuous resilience of Aboriginal people, knowledge, and stories.

Across the 16 dances, the costume design by Jennifer Irwin incorporated traditional textiles and dress like emu feathers, woven natural fibres, gum leaves, and even a series of traditional woven headpieces in “Marjarrka: Men’s Traditional Dance Story”, a story about Wurtuwaya and Wirrali retrieving a stolen totemic object from another group. In other dances, the costuming included more modern dress, often with negative historical connotations, such as the rusty red pants of the colonial prison system or all-black ensembles of mourning and loss. Throughout the costume design of the production there was a linking metallic thread either in the metallic blue paint slashed across the dancers’ bodies or glinting gold in makeup and certain costumes which echoed the great golden backdrop of Jacob Nash’s set design. This crinkled, rippling swath of gold beautifully reflected the lighting design by Nick Schlieper either by emphasising the rich warm hues of red and yellow or contrasting the dark shadows with a cool shine.

Amongst the multilayered production design were the dancers and their movement as choreographed by Stephen Page and Frances Rings. Bangarra is a company second to none for the way they craft their performances to tell stories and convey emotions. In SandSong, the choreography demonstrated the company’s unique and inventive relationship with movement, creating shapes and flows that are evocative and unexpected. Some of the stand-out dances included two early sequences exploring gender and rituals of belonging: “Skin” and “Totem”. In “Skin”, a young woman learns about kinship and women’s business with languid, elegant choreography where the dancers (Rika Hamaguchi, Glory Tuohy-Daniell, Lillian Banks, Courtney Radford, Kassidy Waters, Maddison Paluch, Emily Flannery) seemed to mimic the loose, flowing movement of their emu feather costumes. Similarly, “Totem” follows a group of men preparing a young man for Ceremony with bolder but no less gentle movements. In representation of totemic shapeshifting, the men (Beau Dean Riley Smith, Rikki Mason, Baden Hitchcock, Ryan Pearson, Bradley Smith, Kallum Goolagong, Gusta Mara, Kiarn Doyle, Daniel Mateo) used acrobatic techniques to climb on each other, tumbling into new shapes and combinations of bodies.

In the confronting “Kartiya” act, three dances illustrated elements of colonisation for Wangkatjungka and Walmajarri people. “Auction” was brutal with the dancers using stuttering, angry movement underneath the racing voice of an auctioneer advertising and selling Aboriginal people and Beau Dean Riley Smith fighting off imprisonment while chained. In “Station Labour”, the sound design by Steve Francis created the atmosphere of the colonial stockyards with the snorts of horses and the jangling sounds of tack and equipment. In this season and into the following, the choreography was harsh and unpredictable, bodies lashing out at painful restraints. It’s not surprising to see the impact of colonialism on these regions and peoples represented this way but it was effective.

The air of SandSong was charged not only with anger and hurt but also a powerful feeling of connection, honour, and love for the people, places, and stories being represented from the Kimberley and Great Sandy Desert regions. Bangarra offers an all-encompassing sensorial experience in their performances with a team of creatives and dancers working at the height of their talents.

SandSong: Stories from the Great Sandy Desert is running at the Sydney Opera House from June 10th – July 10th before touring around Australia.

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