COVID-19 has been cruel to artists, not least Indigenous artists. In July 2020, the performers of Bangarra Dance Theatre, founded in 1989, resumed rehearsing each day in a small studio after a four-month furlough.
The ensemble of 17 full-time dancers had reluctantly postponed plans to premiere a five-week season of a new show, SandSong, inspired by land and jila (living water) of the Western Australian Kimberley region, at the Sydney Opera House in June.
The work, seeded from an idea by the late actor Ningali Lawford-Wolf, who died aged 52 from complications following an asthma attack in Edinburgh in 2019 during a tour of the stage adaptation of Kate Grenville’s novel The Secret River, was supposed to have toured to Brisbane, Melbourne and Canberra last year, but all was scuttled by the pandemic and theatre closures.
JobKeeper proved a lifeline for Bangarra until everyone returned. “Everybody [then] took a four-day week,” recalls long-time artistic director Stephen Page of the only Indigenous-led company out of 29 afforded major performing arts company status under Australia Council priority rules.
Most other independent Indigenous dancers and companies face a much greater struggle to make a living, although Page explains that Bangarra is “probably right down the bottom of the 29, in terms of what we get”.
Meanwhile the company set about creating a whole new work in honour of Sydney Festival’s first Indigenous artistic director, Wesley Enoch, for his final festival. The work would begin in Sydney this month then tour Perth and Adelaide festivals.
But trouble struck again: stricter audience limits in New South Wales during the planning stages created uncertainty and affected projections for the show’s financial viability, exacerbated by Western Australia closing its state borders. The project, the working title of which Page will not reveal, has been postponed. “It is Wesley’s last festival too, poor bugger,” says Page.
Instead, Bangarra will present Spirit, a retrospective of highlights from 31 years of work, to be performed outdoors at the Sydney Harbour headland at Barangaroo for Sydney Festival, but the Perth and Adelaide festivals will be deprived of seeing the company this year.
Excerpts will include Ochres (1994), Brolga (2001), Walkabout (2002), Bush (2003) and the gorgeous last section of the 2018 work Nyapanyapa from OUR land people stories, a tribute to the Yirrkala artist Nyapanyapa Yunupingu.
The work will also celebrate Djakapurra Munyarryun, who created much of the traditional choreography and music, as well as the music of the late David Page, one of Stephen’s brothers, who died in 2016. The sudden loss of David was as devastating to the family, and to the company, as the suicide of their brother, the dancer Russell Page, in 2002. “Russell was a great collaborator,” recalls Page.
In a year when Australia has felt the blunt force of bushfire and pandemic, a hunger for First Nations knowledge has grown. Bangarra, which in 2018 interpreted Bruce Pascoe’s bestselling book Dark Emu about pre-colonisation Indigenous practices of agriculture and aquaculture, is providing succour as audiences look for answers about where we find ourselves.
“Our stories really do have messaging, they’re great for people to feel inspired and healed from, and to be awakened by the knowledge that we share,” says Page. “This company is not just a dance company; it’s a cultural foundation that carries story.”
SandSong will hopefully be staged from June 2021. Back in February 2020, a month before COVID-19 shut down arts companies, Page and associate artistic director Frances Rings went to the Kimberley for cultural development of the work, “just to secure what are trusted creation stories that would inspire the creative expression, and then what songs and dance would be entrusted to us to carry to sit within the contemporary structure”.
Lawford-Wolf, born circa 1967 in the large, remote Aboriginal community of Wangkatjungka, 100 kilometres south-east of Fitzroy Crossing, originally trained as a dancer, performing with Bangarra before she became known as an actor. She appeared in Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence, released in 2002, playing the mother of two of the three little girls stolen from their families. It was a true story that had a particular resonance for the actor: Lawford-Wolf’s own father had been forcibly removed from his parents too.
Page, who went to Edinburgh with Lawford-Wolf’s brother and sister to repatriate her body back to Australia, attended sorry business on country with Rings. Lawford-Wolf was “pretty much driving SandSong in the back of our minds”, says Page, and the work will celebrate the story she wanted to give from country.
“We’re constantly carrying trauma but also constantly trying to create that goanna skin and protect and care for land and stories,” says Page.
“At Bangarra, as much as we know it is challenging having that responsibility, at the same time we don’t take any of this for granted. The power in First Nations storytelling is priceless, really. It’s a wonderful medicine.”
Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Spirit: A retrospective 2021 will run in Sydney from January 20–24.
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