Three years ago, Bangarra Dance Theatre looked to the stars with Dark Emu, a thoughtful exploration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander science. Sandsong: Stories from the Great Sandy Desert instead sifts the red soil of Western Australia’s Kimberley region, to celebrate the stories and kinships that have endured brutal pastoral and mining fiefdoms.
Choreographers Stephen Page and Frances Rings draw on the cultural knowledge of the Wangkatjungka and Walmajarri communities to craft contemporary dance that is grounded, communal, and nourished by memory.
The first half of the performance establishes the vibrant history of the region, with a happy and harmonious culture represented by smooth movement and Jacob Nash’s shimmering golden-red backdrop set. The company’s hands-on exploration of local kinship and smoking ceremonies, bush dances, and family legends makes the dances feel timeless and dreamlike, but also specific and personal. Drawing on the gender roles in these local traditions, here the all-female dances are soft, while the all-male dances are boisterous.
This peace is smashed by the trauma of European arrival, with raw and confronting segments that tackle slavery, family separation, deaths in custody, and acoholism. Hope comes with station walk-offs, with Vincent Lingiari’s voice renewing the pride of the dancers. In one creative segment, wirework is used to represent communities working together to lift each other up. While the lost golden age is not restored, meaning is reclaimed through collective action.
Aboriginal language is used to striking effect throughout the production. With Aboriginal people forbidden the use of their own languages for decades, their use here alongside the fight for native title gives them powerful resonance, as though the land itself calls for justice.
Bangarra’s performances are always sophisticated, but here the stability of the performers is striking, with complexity achieved in the positioning of the ensemble, rather than the contortions of the individual dancer. This approach beautifully expresses the production’s themes of community of land, grounding the dancers in both.
Sandsong held the Canberra Theatre audience rapt, with the exquisite performance capturing the extraordinary beauty of the great sandy desert, while breaking through the abstract politics of land rights to unfold the human stories that give life to place.