Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article contains the name of someone who has passed. The family of Ningali Lawford-Wolf has given the media permission to use her name.
Bangarra Dance Theatre has an impressive record of bringing First Nations stories and culture from the remote north of Australia to the benighted south. In the past, they’ve concentrated on Arnhemland and the Torres Strait, beside their at least equal examination of the urban Aboriginal angst. The late David Page was a master of incorporating earth-shaking tribal song and rhythms into his urban beats.
Now they’re attempting the same with ‘Sandsong’ – Stories from the Great Sandy Desert. This is a title that requires a little backgrounding. For behind these suggestions of work rooted in the tali/sandhills and waterholes of Australia’s most northerly desert is the reality that the Wankatjungka and Walmajarri peoples who’d lived there for uncountable generations were actually driven out by a variety of factors in the mid-20th Century. Drought, the intrusion of the Canning Stock Route and the often violent arrival of pastoralists all combined to send them northwards, spreading out from the coast near Broome across The Kimberley to the east around Kununurra.
For Bangarra, this exodus was personified by the late great Ningali Lawford-Wolf and her family, to whom they not only pay tribute in the program, but they also include a traditional men’s dance in ‘Sandsong‘ revolving around the recovery of a stolen totemic object that derives from the Lawford family archives.
Ningali emerged from her birth beneath a bauhinia tree on Christmas Creek Station via schooling in Perth and a scholarship to Alaska of all places to tell her story in an eponymous one-woman show in the 1997 Dreaming Festival. She made it clear there that the key to her two-way survival was the survival of language – and it’s great to hear substantial snatches of her Wangkatjungka/Walmajarri words in Steve Francis’s sound design. This would undoubtedly have arrived through the efforts of Ningali’s brother and sister, Putuparri Tom Lawford and artist Eva Nargoodah, for Ningali herself died last year while touring in Scotland with a production of ‘Secret River‘. Putuparri may be familiar from both his cultural advice on the great National Museum show, ‘Yiwarra Kuju’ (Canning Stock Route) and the appearance of his name in the title of that super doco film, ‘Putuparri and the Rainmakers’.
That revealed the importance for his people, now based in the riverine Fitzroy Crossing, of getting back to the desert to take care of their ancestral Country – the places that were at the heart of the paintings of generations of artists ranging from Daniel Walbidi to Rover Thomas and Eubena Nampitjin, but especially those in Fitzroy Crossing, where Jarinyanu David Downs, Jimmy Pike, Spider and Dolly Snell, Daisy Andrews and Tommy May all painted the desert from afar.
Interestingly, the traditional separation of men and women occurs through most of the dancing in ‘Sandsong‘ – except where they come together to Paint Country, towards the end of the 90 minute piece. “Art transports them back to their Ancestral Lands, reconnecting and reaffirming ties to Country”, says the program – though of course art has also given them the financial wherewithal to buy troupies to get there physically.
I have to say that the detail described in the program didn’t always come across in the more abstract dancing – choreography shared between Stephen Page and Frances Rings. Not mentioned in the invaluable program, but apparent to me, was the suggestion of a matriarchy in the earliest Aboriginal society – women with their traditional digging sticks bringing humanity to life. But then the gender revolution – which is actually recorded in Arnhemland stories – sees the men take over, the women’s dance reduced to bunny-hops while the red-striped men – especially leader Beau Dean Riley Smith – briefly soar. I’m not sure why, but much of the rest of the choreography seems to be based on the ground – surely an unlikely place for desert people to chose to dance. Kimberley ceremony, in my experience, may be earth-bound, but invariably vertical – as it was in the Cone Dance which involved head-dresses that seemed to reference Gwion Gwion images straight off The Kimberley’s rock walls.
The women are dancing for stories involving the hunter-gathering of Bush Onions and Bush Potatoes – a reality that won’t go down well with Bruce Pascoe’s denial of such essential activity. Though his ‘Dark Emu’s’ denial is itself now under attack from academics in a new book, ‘Farmers or Hunter-gatherers?‘
Politics come squarely into the show too, right from the premonitions of the horrors to come at the very beginning through the chaining of men and the enslavement of pastoral workers during the worst excesses of those times. Pity there was no room for an appreciation of the positives of that era when families at least remained on Country and maintained ceremony during the summer Wet. For the very end, through cleansing smoke, reminded us “You belong to this Country”.
Artist: Eva Nargoodah, Daniel Walbidi to Rover Thomas and Eubena Nampitjin, Jarinyanu David Downs, Jimmy Pike, Spider Snell, Dolly Snell, Daisy Andrews, Tommy May,