The first time Frances Rings visited the incomprehensibly vast expanse of land that is Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre in South Australia, she found it a disconcerting experience.

“I felt very unsettled, very exposed and vulnerable,” Rings says of the trip she took in late 2011. “It’s so quiet and at night it’s black; if you live in urban areas like Sydney it’s really confronting, because we live in the hub of modern life.”

With a catchment area of more than 1.2 million square kilometres, South Australia’s Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre is one of the largest lakes in the southern hemisphere, known for its ever-changing landscape. When Rings returned the following year, the experience couldn’t have been more different. Where the lake had been full of water in 2011 – a result of the powerful and destructive tropical Cyclone Yasi that made landfall in northern Queensland – by early 2012 the water had completely drained away.

“It was a total transformation of Country, I was overwhelmed,” Rings tells Broadsheet. “Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre really puts things into perspective. It’s inspiring, it’s abstract, it’s rich, it’s ancient and you really feel a power and energy. And in a matter of moments the light changes, the colour changes – it’s always in transformation.”

Rings made the trip ahead of choreographing Terrain, her first full-length work for Bangarra Dance Theatre, accompanied by set designer Jacob Nash, the late composer David Page, and scientist and Arabunna elder Reginald Dodd, Terrain’s cultural consultant.

Not only did Rings find the landscape moving, she was profoundly affected by the connection to Country the landscape evoked, driving home to her just how important that connection is for First Nations people. Ringing in her ears were the words of Uncle Reg [Dodd], who led and won a Native Title claim to the land in May 2012.

“Uncle Reg shared the creation stories, the knowledge, stories of Country. But he was very honest and said, ‘You also have to tell this from your perspective – what Country means to mob who live in urban areas. What is that connection? Is it still important?’”

These are questions Rings took back with her to Sydney and the Bangarra dancers – questions, observations and responses that ultimately fed into and inspired the suite of stories that make up Terrain. Presented as nine vignettes, Terrain sits on a songline from drought to deluge, exploring what Country means to Indigenous people. There is a section inspired by the land rights and Native Title movement; an homage to the stunning, ever-shifting vistas of the landscape itself, from dry to wet to salt, and the nature of the flora and fauna; and an exploration of the cultural responsibilities carried by First Nations people – of custodianship and maintaining knowledge for future generations.

When Broadsheet visited Bangarra’s Walsh Bay studios to watch rehearsal, it was astonishing to see the transformation of the four assembled dancers, who seemingly embodied the land they were depicting through Rings’s distinctive and evocative choreographic language.

As Rings prepares to take over the company from its longstanding artistic director Stephen Page, a decade since Terrain’s debut, it is interesting to note how relevant the work remains.

“It’s timeless, and relevant for many reasons,” Rings says. “We live in a country of extremes – of droughts and deluge and fires – and there are many things we can learn from Indigenous people about the diversity of management systems, the knowledge that can be used in caring for Country. I don’t think there’s enough effort put into that knowledge.”

On a more hopeful note, Rings says the recent change of government shows Australians are determined to know their country is being cared for, that there is a plan for climate change and for safeguarding our planet for our children’s future.

Interestingly, only two of the 16 dancers who will perform Terrain have danced it before. A collaborative choreographer, Rings has enjoyed working with the new, young company, incorporating their responses and interpretations into the production.

The exquisite and evocative sets and costumes, and David Page’s incomparable score, remain unchanged. “It’s some of David’s best work,” says Rings of the composer, who died in 2016 and is outgoing artistic director Stephen Page’s older brother. “When he asked what the work was going to be about and I said, ‘I want to do a work about Country,’ his face lit up. He said, ‘I’m going to make something really special for this.’ David’s work captures the energy of people and place, it takes you to Country, it’s like a galaxy of music that surrounds you and tells this story.”

Terrain runs at the Sydney Opera House from June 9–25, before touring to Canberra (July 28–30) and Brisbane (August 4–13).

bangarra.com.au