Bangarra Dance Theatre’s work Sandsong: Stories from the Great Sandy Desert has its world premiere tomorrow, June 10, at Sydney Opera House. It tells the story of the Walmajarri people of the Kimberley region, where hundreds of generations of Indigenous people have resided; their stories, songlines and knowledge have been passed down for tens of thousands of years. It’s also the country of actor Ningali Josie Lawford-Wolf, a close collaborator of Bangarra, who passed away suddenly in 2019.

To inform the work, Bangarra’s dancers embedded themselves on Walmajarri Country. The result is a work that explores the ancient stories of the people of the Kimberley and Great Sandy Deserts, the shape-shifting government policies that still affect them and their determination to hold tight to their ancient culture.

Above, three of those dancers – Beau Dean Riley Smith, Kassidy Waters and Rikki Mason – share their photo diary of their time spent on country. And below, they express what the journey to Walmajarri Country meant to them and their art.

By Beau Dean Riley Smith, Kassidy Waters and Rikki Mason

Every production that Bangarra creates and performs within Australia and overseas begins with a community that has placed their trust in the company to share that story – their story. It’s something completely unique to us, a storytelling born of 65,000 years of culture.

It starts off as a conversation with Elders and Cultural Knowledge Holders, that then turns into a beautiful relationship of sharing and creating a bond with the community and Bangarra. For the story of Sandsong, the dancers and artistic team travelled to the Kimberley, to have a first-hand experience of the country. It’s a privilege to have the responsibility to tell these stories, and we have a commitment to these communities that inspire our work, and a responsibility to give back.

The story Sandsong is based on the beautiful Kimberley region (Walmajarri Country). We were able to have a little taste of what Walmajarri Country looks like and experience how unique the terrain is from the rest of Australia. When we visit country we fully submerge ourselves and open all our senses to receive what the community and land want to share with us.

We stayed in a town called Fitzroy Crossing, working and learning closely with the Lawford and Nargoodah family. The family made us all feel like we were at home. It was a very humbling experience; we visited the local school (Fitzroy Valley District School) and learned their traditional dances, that will be an integral part of Sandsong. To be gifted something as special as a traditional dance is such an honour, and a privilege to perform.

We convoyed to Kupartiya, to the Lawford family cattle station (Bohemia Downs), where the late Ningali Lawford-Wolf has been laid to rest. This show is dedicated to Ningali, she’s inspired the story. Eva Nargoodah (Ningali’s sister) led the convoy. We stopped off at certain outlooks to share family stories and their connection to the land. Being able to learn and immerse ourselves within these trips has such strong and lasting impact on us. You don’t experience this anywhere else, setting up tarkett [dance flooring] at the school, being surrounded by kids that are so intrigued as to who we are and what we are doing there.

By having these experiences and creating these relationships with the community, it allows Bangarra’s productions to have a potency, full of culture that is rich and driven by a community that remains strong and vibrant. Following our national tour around the country we then return the work back to country. We travel the production via a large freight truck and build it on the local basketball court, under the Kimberley stars. We feed the community and present the performance to them. It’s always such a special evening and allows them to be able to experience what their knowledge and stories translated to on the stage.

We hope by having this experience we will be able to translate the truths of the Kimberley region in the abstract form of dance theatre, informing the audience through mythological, social and spiritual forms.

We hope the audience will be greatly affected by this show and all its elements. The audience will get to experience the vast but exquisite detail of the Kimberley and the Great Sandy Desert, and share in these stories that they might not be aware of or have access to. We’re excited for the future and are very proud to be a part of the legacy of that, not only as a company and collective of generations of artists but as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people telling our stories on the main stage.

Tour dates

Sydney June 10–July 10 – Sydney Opera House

Canberra July 15–17 – Canberra Theatre Centre

Bendigo July 23 & 24 – Ulumbarra Theatre

Brisbane August 13–21 – QPAC

Melbourne August 27–September 4 – Arts Centre Melbourne @bangarradancetheatre