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 Company’s SandSong: Stories from the Great Sandy Desert brings stories of the Kimberley and its people to centre stage at the Sydney Opera House.

SandSong tells the story of the Wangkatjungka/Walmajarri people: their survival, culture and kinship despite dispossession, displacement and cultural disruption. And it honours the legacy of late Wangkatjungka woman, Ningali Lawford-Wolf, and her family.

Remembered as a woman who loved her Country, Ms Lawford-Wolf began her life under the shade of a tree at Christmas Creek Station in the far-north Kimberley.

She was no stranger to Australian screens, starring in well-known films Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), Last Cab to Darwin (2015) and Bran Nue Dae (2009), among other works.

In September 2019, Ms Lawford-Wolf passed away in Edinburgh, Scotland whilst touring Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Secret River.

Bangarra Ensemble for SandSong by Daniel Boud.

Bangarra associate artistic director and SandSong co-choreographer Frances Rings describes Ms Lawford-Wolf as a sister. The pair first met in Sydney in the late 1980s.

“My sister and I, we were 17 when we met. We had this strong bond for over 20 years and so SandSong is a personal and very emotional work,” Ms Rings said.

“It’s inspired by her family’s experiences and the experiences of the people from the Great Sandy Desert and the incredible strength and resilience that they had to survive.”

Bangarra created SandSong through deep consultation and collaboration with Wangkatjungka/ Walmajarri Elders, including Ms Lawford-Wolf’s family members Putuparri Tom Lawford and Eva Nargoodah.

“Our sister Miss Lawford shared this story with us and said that she wanted to tell it with Bangarra — it was something that we always felt was so precious,” Ms Rings said.

“It was quite emotional for us … telling this story that has been so generously shared with us from Eva Nargoodah and Tom Lawford who supported us from the start.

“It’s the story of the Kimberley, it’s the story of the Wangkatjungka/Walmajarri people, it’s epic. It is a big story; it can be overwhelming because you want to do it in the right way.”

Ms Rings, a Kokatha woman with cultural ties to the west coast of South Australia, said the most rewarding part has been sitting with mob throughout the process.

“The most precious and rewarding part of creating work for me, is going and sitting with mob, sharing space and letting them know that we are guided by how they want to tell this story. It begins and ends with that — otherwise we don’t have a story,” she said.

“The wonderful thing about Bangarra, and the legacy of Bangarra, is that it begins and ends with the people and the energy of Country and their relationship with Country.”

“That is the bedrock of our story. I was really fortunate that I had the existing relationship with the community and that family. I knew that family because their daughter, their granddaughter, I looked after her in the city and she looked after me on Country.”

Capturing the story of Wangkatjungka/Walmajarri people with integrity, authenticity and respect is the essence of Bangarra’s mission — truth-telling at its core.

“There’s been a softening of people being aware and open to our history as opposed to denial. Our history has some trauma, darkness and shadow there that Indigenous people have been carrying for a long time — and we shouldn’t be carrying that alone,” Ms Rings said.

“The diversity of our survival, those are the stories that we should be telling, that’s the thing that’s going to give our young people hope and give them a future to work towards.”

Baden Hitchcock for SandSong by Bangarra at the Sydney Opera House. Photo Credit Daniel Boud.

SandSong began with the seed that Ms Lawford-Wolf sowed with Bangarra, and so, walking alongside her family, Bangarra created a performance that remembers and honours her.

“I want her spirit to live in this work as a way of reminding us that it doesn’t matter where you were born, or your upbringing — she was born under a tree and yet she achieved so much,” Ms Rings said.

“These are incredible hardships of our Indigenous women, and those who have gone through and lived in the desert. In the most inhospitable parts of the world, they survived — not only that, they have a huge kinship and family.

“I just wanted to give something back to her family and to her community.”

SandSong: Stories from the Great Sandy Desert is touring Australia until September 4.

By Rachael Knowles