Sunday, July 18, 2021

SANDSONG - Songs from the Great Sandy Desert - Bangarra Dance Theatre


Riki Hamaguchi and Company in "Sandsong"

Choreographed by Stephen Page, Frances Rings and the dancers of Bangarra Dance Theatre.

Composed by Steve Francis – Costumes designed by Jennifer Irwin

Set Design by Jacob Nash - Lighting design by Nick Schlieper

Canberra Theatre from 15th – 17th July 2021.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens.

Perhaps its most political offering to date, and certainly one of its most ambitious, Bangarra’s first full-length work in three years, “Sandsong”, traces the history of the indigenous inhabitants of the Great Sandy Desert over the centuries.

This history is encapsulated in sixteen episodes, some of which are harsh, starting with an uncomfortably loud filmed sequence with a deliberately grating soundtrack incorporating archival images of men in iron chains, prison scenes and gunshots. Some sequences are literal, involving traditional dances and initiation ceremonies. Others depict people being auctioned to work as labourers on stations, and station workers rising up against their treatment by the landowners.

Riki Hamaguchi - Baden Hitchcock in "Sandsong"

Lyrical episodes include a beautiful sequence involving a lost boy which concludes with a lovely duet between the boy and his sister, memorably performed by Rika Hamaguchi and Baden Hitchcock.

The episodes flow seamlessly in a kind of  living tapestry depicting significant events and customs relating to the Great Sandy Desert and ending in a spectacular finale for which the entire company was costumed in costumes splashed with gold against a gorgeous shimmering gold backcloth creating, perhaps incongruously, the effect of an exotic Klimt painting.

Bangarra dancers in the finale of "Sandsong"

Jennifer Irwin’s costumes for the various sections ranged through simple brief earth-coloured trunks and tops, through trousers, skirts and shifts, until finally the afore-mentioned spectacular finale costumes and always perfect for the events being portrayed.

So were Jacob Nash’s beautiful moody sculptural settings, beautifully lit by Nick Schlieper to create sympathetic environments for each of the episodes.

Bangarra is a proud ensemble company, but since its last visit to Canberra there have been some significant changes in the line-up of dancers. The choreography for “Sandsong” is attributed to Stephen Page, Frances Rings and the dancers of the company. It was danced with extraordinary commitment and skill by the dancers, perhaps as a result of their involvement in the choreography.

However among the familiar faces, Beau Dean Riley Smith and Rika Hamaguchi both continue to exhibit that special charisma and presence that draws the eye to them whenever they are on stage.

One section entitled “Build up/ Walk off” featured aerial work performed by Rikki Mason and Lillian Banks. Although marginally interesting, the necessary clumsy apparatus caused it to become an unwanted intrusion on the otherwise mystical atmosphere of the rest of the piece.


Bangarra Dance Theatre is unique in that it is devoted to telling indigenous stories through the medium of dance. “Sandsong”, with its stories of the Kimberley and the Great Sandy Desert, is a compelling addition to its extraordinary repertoire.  

                                                      Photos by Daniel Boud

This review also appears in AUSTRALIAN ARTS REVIEW.