Australian Dance Theatre’s Remarkable History

The Australian Dance Theatre’s (ADT) work reflects its remarkable history and the postmodern, globalised world we live in, writes Robyn Archer in this extract from Fifty: Half a Century of Australia Dance Theatre.

That any Australian dance company achieves 50 years of continuous operation is a cause for celebration. During that time, there have been massive changes in the Australian dance/arts landscape, and Australian Dance Theatre has managed to accommodate, and often lead, those changes.

Elizabeth Cameron Dalman’s vision was to create a modern dance company at a time when there was little modern dance in Australia, particularly in South Australia. It was all ballet. She had to train the dancers in contemporary dance from scratch, and the content of her early works reflected the concerns of a new generation. From the Vietnam War to the shifting mores of 1960s Australia, ADT’s subject matter, as well as its style and form, was distinctly contemporary from the start.

Jonathan Taylor brought a new approach via his experience with Ballet Rambert (now Rambert Dance Company) in London. He introduced Australia to the work of leading UK choreographer Christopher Bruce, and, as choreographer, created benchmark works such as Wildstars.

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Leigh Warren had also been with Rambert, as well as Nederlands Dance Theatre where Jiˇrí Kylián made a number of works on and for Leigh. At the helm of ADT, Leigh not only managed to use this international reputation to bring about a collaboration with Bill Forsythe, but also invited Australian choreographers such as Graeme Murphy and Kate Champion to create new works for the company.

When Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal arrived to perform Kontakthof as part of the Adelaide Festival of Arts, the dance audience’s eyes were opened even wider, and when Meryl Tankard, who as a young Australian dancer had joined that company, took up the reins of ADT, the direction of the company took another turn for the best. Bausch’s plain-speaking choreographic language met Meryl’s passionate approach to movement and brought new energy to the Australian scene.

ADT’s work now reflects that remarkable history in a diverse approach that in turn reflects the postmodern, globalised world we live in. Projects by ADT under the artistic directorship of Garry Stewart include ambitious international collaborations with artists from other fields such as robotics, architecture, and interactive video. Three-dimensional graphics, film, gallery installations, performances in public spaces, creative projects for online spaces and community projects are all part of this diversity. A palpable connection to science strengthens this robust repertoire as neurocognition and physics (Multiverse) become part of the company’s language and narratives: Be Your Self and Proximity were both concerned with perception and the body.

On the most intimate scale – that is, the transaction between choreographer and dancer – Garry has brought a signature physicality to the work of ADT, and his ongoing study of dramaturgy continues to inform the shape and substance of the company’s works. At the same time, on the global scale, the company is in demand.

australian-dance-theatre-fifty-adelaide-reviewGarry Stewart in rehearsal with ADT (photo: Chris Herzfeld) 

ADT has always enjoyed an international profile. Elizabeth Cameron Dalman’s work toured primarily to Asia and the international connections of subsequent artistic directors ensured the company’s standing. ADT is now a favourite in Europe, and Garry’s ambition draws all those connections together. His plans are for an international centre for choreography; a place where the company’s international relationships are brought back to Australia.

If this seems to some over-ambitious, just look at the daring that made the company in the first place, and think too of the modest capital, Adelaide, which has had such great success in establishing itself as a world-renowned festival city. Anything is possible, and we look forward, with such gratitude and so many high hopes, to the next 50 years of Australian Dance Theatre.

Maggie Tonkin, Fifty: Half a Century of Australian Dance Theatre (Wakefield Press)

Header image: Promotional image from Far Cry (1989), Nick Brokensha

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