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.
Stephen Page, artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre, is sitting in the belly of the Sydney Opera House looking out over the beautiful bay of water of the Eora Nation when we speak. He’s thinking about his late brothers Russell and David, and all that they gave to building the First Nations-led dance company that has woven so much richness into the cultural fabric of Australia; their presence is always felt in every work produced by this troupe. Russell lives on in the flickering shadow of his silken moves, and David's life's work assembling a vast audio vault informs the company's musical direction to this day.
The twin tragedies of their loss reverberate in the magnificent documentary Firestarter: The Story of Bangarra. As does the strength and joy Stephen Page still draws from them every day. If he feels their loss keenly, he can always step into Bangarra's archive, a living monument to 35-plus years of brilliance, and play something from the files that will remind him of them. "I can go in there and listen to a wet season coming from a distance for about four minutes in this beautiful soundscape,” Page says. “It’s great that we can still have those inspirations, and you know, they’re cheeky buggers, those two boys. They stir me up all the time to keep pushing me, you know.”
He finds solace in the company they built together. “Coming through that fire and seeing the spirit of Bangarra has been a great medicine for all my grieving,” he says. “Because all those people that I have lost, they all were so instrumental in and passionate about telling stories.”
After a year in the wilderness, as we all faced down the year that wasn't, Page cannot wait to unfold the company's latest work, SandSong, in the Harbour icon – the first production publically staged by the company since the national shutdown in March 2020. Choreographed by Page and close friend and associate director Frances Rings, it too is a story that navigates loss and love. It honours the legacy of Wangkatjunga woman Ningali Josie Lawford-Wolf and her connection to Country. She was a good friend to the company and a close cultural consultant. Tragically, she died in Edinburgh in 2019, aged 52, while touring there with STC show The Secret River.
She was always bringing her Kimberlys stories, the language and the knowledge of that place
Page had hoped to travel there to see her, but was on her Country at the time running cultural workshops for their anniversary show 30 years of 65,000. “Frances and I, we just went and grabbed her older brother and sister and her immediate family. Especially her children, we just needed to support them. And we all went over to Edinburgh to repatriate her body and bring it back on Country.”
He says of the remarkable actor, who went from the Bush to boarding school in Alaska and appeared alongside her mother in Phillip Noyce’s celebrated film Rabbit-Proof Fence, that preserving Culture was at the heart of everything she did. “She was always bringing her Kimberlys stories, the language and the knowledge of that place.”
She came to see Bangarra show Bennelong at the Opera House in 2017, and told Page that she would love him to tell her Country’s story. “About the creation stories from the great sandy deserts, about her father’s cattle station and how they got displaced from their land," Page says. While they never got the opportunity to work on it together, Page knew that he and Rings had to honour the memory of their great friend, in close collaboration with Lawford-Wolf’s family. They all first met way back in college. “We just knew that Ningali was shaping us to tell her story.”
Photograph: Supplied/Daniel Boud
Page is so glad he has Rings by his side, even if they have very different processes. “She loves her research and has much more structure than me in storytelling. My imagination's a bit out there and I like the challenge of having a blank canvas and going on an intuitive process.”
The company started creating the show in early 2020, but no one involved could have anticipated just how long they would eventually have to take the creative process from spark to stage. “Normally we get nine to 10 weeks to create a new work a year, but this one got to evolve in its cave because of the current situation. We got to look at the value of the company and the importance of who we are as a cultural foundation that continues to tell our First Nations stories.”
We got to look at the value of the company and the importance of who we are as a cultural foundation that continues to tell our First Nations stories
The turbulence of 2020 came on the back of a natural regeneration for the company, with many of its most experienced dancers moving on and new ones stepping into the fold. Page's first priority, during lockdown, was to look after their mental health, and that of their families, with many unable to return to Country. Working on SandSong and their personal development was a tonic. “It really just made you care for the fragility of the mind, body and soul of the company, because art is a great medicine, you know.”
The importance of having a strong community during a crisis is something Page knows all too well. He has a sturdy support network that has carried him through the darkest hours, including his sisters. “I’ve always had a clan, a mob around me. And we’ve always shared and cared for each other, so I really do believe it’s coming from the strength of my culture. You know, we’ve worked with the same collaborators like Steve Francis, Jennifer Irwin, Jacob Nash, Nick Schlieper and Alana Valentine for 15 years now. We’re all such a shorthand language anyway.”
It’s a powerful team and as Page enters his fourth decade at the helm of the company, this is especially reassuring. He looks at Rings and knows that the future of Bangarra is assured. “She’s done incredible work with the dancers; she’s been on fire. It’s been so inspiring to watch, because I do feel the company is going to be left in great hands. Passing on leadership feels healthy, you know. And as this company is meant to be a foundation to continue to tell our stories. And yes, I’ve been a big part of it, but for the first time I could say, in my life, I feel strong about it living on and breathing on without me.”