Friday, July 16, 2021

SANDSONG Stories from the Great Sandy Desert




Choreographed by Stephen Page and Frances Rings. Music composed by Steve Francis. Set designer Jacob Nash. Lighting design Nick Schlieper. Costume designer Jennifer Irwin. AV designer David Bergman. Dancers: Lillian Banks, Bradley Smith, Courtney Radford, Kassidy Waters. Kallum Goolagong. Gusta Mara. Kiarn Doyle. Emily Flannery. Maddisom Paluch. Daniel Mateo Bangarra Dance Theatre in consultation with Wangkatjungka/Walmajarri Elders from the Kimberley and Great Sandy Desert regions. Canberra Theatre. Canberra Theatre Centre. July 15 – 17 2021.

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

Steve Francis’s powerful composition explodes forcibly as the curtain rises on set designer Jacob Nash and lighting designer Nick Schlieper’s landscape of pindan red dust soil rising to a flaming red backdrop of spindly tree trunks in the heart of the Kimberley Desert. This is the landscape of an ancient culture of an ancient peoples. It is the landscape of invasion and cruelty, of protest and of survival. Images flicker against the trees. People of the Kimberley Desert enslaved in chains, torn from their families, dispossessed of their land and imprisoned behind wire walls. It is the landscape of pride, spirits and totem, of Nature, the environment and age old custom and laws. It is a landscape defiled and an environment that renews and offers hope, the hope revealed by the songlines that sweep through the ages and sung by the proud people of the Kimberley Desert.

Here lies the heart of Bangarra Dance Theatre’s latest tribute to the resilience of the land’s First Nation people. Sandsong is a stunning, moving, thought-provoking expression of the power of art to reveal in all its profundity the human spirit. Contemporary dance and traditional ritual and commemoration combine in a fusion of dance, music, song  evocative lighting and the spoken word. Grace and athleticism give rise to story and commentary. The language of Bangarra’s dance is articulated through the image of experience. Men’s business and women’s business encapsulate the order and custom of a society. Choreographers Stephen Page and Frances Rings weave a physical masterpiece of magical storytelling.

Told in four Acts, Sandsong takes us on a journey of awareness as a young woman is guided through kinship and the traditional Bush Onion Dance. Similarly, a young man is initiated into the ritual transformation to manhood. In Act 2 men and women perform their separate business. They are rooted to the land and imbued with the spirits of ancestral custom. The women hunt while the men make shelters from the smoking spinifex. In Act 3 tranquility and order are rent asunder by the arrival of the invaders, the enslavement of a noble people and the vile voice of an auctioneer who condemns the captives to cruel labour, only to be offered hope by the voiceover of Vincent Lingari. A lost boy in Act Four serves as the catalyst for rescue by his sister and the spirits of the ancestral Lore Men who can initiate the healing. This is the Lore Time, the time of hope and healing, of resilience and commemoration of spirit and union. These are the stories of the Great Sandy Desert, sung and danced by the people who have survived the oppression, the displacement and the ignorance of centuries of occupation of their land. Page and Rings use the power of their creative imagination to tell their story through a dance that transcends time and space. Ritual passed down through the ages is threaded through a woven tapestry of spiritual  and emotional physicality, powerfully connected to the earth and embracing the air in a soaring aerial display by a male and female dancer. Page and Ring’s choreographic tapestry is rich in form and movement, combining the familiar with the innovative. Ever changing like the seasons that give it substance, the dance weaves its song lines and stories in a  performance of visual and aesthetic bewitchment.

To witness Sandsong is to be transported to a new consciousness. I am left at the end of the performance as the dancers find comfort in the sands of their people with a faith in their power to survive, but a despair that Sandsong sings the same laments of ages past. There is hope. There is change, but Bangarra teaches us that the past serves to instruct the future and the magnificence of their art is the mirror to a people and a culture that must be preserved and shared,

A final word of advice. Do read the programme notes before the curtain rises, You will be transported by this beautifully staged and exquisitely danced experience, but even more enriched if you appreciate the way the story is magically woven through the dance. Sandsong reaffirms Bangarra Dance Theatre’s exalted place as the nation’s national treasure.