Art

artistic directors Stephen Page and Frances Rings created Sandsong inspired by Ningali Lawford.

And, adds Rings, the discipline of dance gave them a thick skin. They knew they had to work for it. If the mainstream wouldn’t employ them, they would forge their own path.

“We had a different fire, and a different way,” she says.

The decades to come would see triumph and tragedy. In 1991, Page took the helm of Bangarra Dance Theatre, where he has been artistic director for 30 years. Anu would become a star of Australian music. Rings joined Bangarra in 1993, fresh out of college where Page had taught her, becoming one of the country’s leading choreographers both in and out of the company.

SandSong by Bangarra Dance Company.

SandSong by Bangarra Dance Company.Credit:Dan Boud

She often tells the story of how Page, “this visionary storyteller”, was casting for a prototype of Bangarra’s acclaimed, iconic Ochres and didn’t give her a part. “It just made me want more,” she says. Page adds: “I made her work for it.” Now Rings is about to take over from Page as Bangarra artistic director.

Lawford, meanwhile, became one of the outstanding actresses of a generation, in countless stage roles as well as films Rabbit-Proof Fence, Bran Nue Dae and Last Cab to Darwin. She was an important cultural consultant and artistic collaborator for Bangarra; her spirit and stories inspired several of their shows. And she was a cultural adviser, she chaired boards, she exhausted herself speaking both Language and English.

“She was a bridge,” Page says.

“She was getting pulled,” Rings says.

And then in 2019 she was lost, aged 52, dying from complications after an asthma attack in Edinburgh, a city that had embraced her.

The shine in Page’s and Rings’ eyes is the one reserved for a dear friend and stupendous talent. Sadness at her death, yes, and joy in her life. Page knows this feeling too well, having lost his brothers and collaborators Russell and David.

And so Page and Rings have created a show together for Bangarra called SandSong about, for and from Lawford, her people and her Country, in the Great Sandy Desert that slices into Australia’s heart from the north-west.

Bangarra dancers Rika Hamaguchi and Baden Hitchcock.  Bangarra's latest performance Sandsong was created in consultation with Wangkajunga/Walmajarri Elders from the Kimberley and Great Sandy desert.

Bangarra dancers Rika Hamaguchi and Baden Hitchcock. Bangarra’s latest performance Sandsong was created in consultation with Wangkajunga/Walmajarri Elders from the Kimberley and Great Sandy desert.Credit:Rhett Wyman/SMH

“[They] were displaced, and they faced incredible challenges,” says Rings. “Child removal, being used as forced labor … their survival, their resilience, how they stand today, and this young generation who are proud living testament of this culture. It’s a beautiful story that was shared with us through Ningali, who wanted us to do this work.”

During rehearsals Page and Rings kept wondering what she would have thought of it. And they found old recordings, from years ago, when Lawford would travel the world then come back to record little voices and Language with David Page.

“It was almost like she led us there,” Page says. “Throughout the process she was with us all the way. She’s probably with us now. She’s going, ‘What are you doing in my city of Melbourne?’

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Page and Rings remember visiting Lawford here. She would take them to her favorite restaurants and markets, where everyone would greet her by name. Wherever she went she found a family, they say.

“Her legacy is she told everybody else’s story,” says Rings. “We wanted the opportunity to tell her story. Often people are reflective of Country. And [Lawford’s] Country is dramatic. It’s powerful, it’s old and it’s ancient and it’s dynamic. They come from the Great Sandy Desert, one of the most inhospitable places in the world.

“And you get these seasons, wet season, bang, dry season. It’s always challenging, it’s character building.”

And that was their Ningali. As a child she would dance in the wind, perform in the elements, tell stories.

“She would walk into the room and she would make sure that everybody was looking at her. She would be the center of the universe.”

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