Australian Dance Theatre at 50

For any dance company, but particularly a modern dance company, a 50th anniversary is something to shout about.

Australian Dance Theatre, founded in 1965, has survived despite a couple of dismissals and embittered departures by former artistic directors, and it continues to produce outstandingly influential dancers and choreographers. Ironically, in recent years, it has been seen more widely by audiences overseas than in Australia. Under Garry Stewart, the company’s longest serving artistic director, it has become the nation’s most travelled dance troupe. This year ADT has already been to France and Spain, will soon be in France again, and will tour half-a-dozen Australian towns and cities in July and August. Touring was not on the agenda when Elizabeth Dalman teamed up with former Royal Ballet dancer Leslie White to found ADT in 1965. Adelaide-born Dalman began dance lessons at four, from Nora Stewart, the queen of dance teachers who also taught Bobby Helpmann. Ballroom and ballet were less interesting to Dalman (then Wilson) than a class in tunics and bare feet, given by Morna Dobbie, following the method of the English modern, Margaret Morris. Later, Dalman studied and danced abroad, mainly in Holland, coming home in 1963. She began to teach, continued to perform, and in 1965 White joined her – in retrospect, this was all for the best, she says, for their combined performances meant Adelaide audiences were being introduced gently to modern dance. When White left for Queensland in 1967, Dalman took the gamble and ADT became a truly modern company.  Her studio in Gay’s Arcade became a theatre on Sunday nights for regular workshop performances, followed by forums, introducing audiences to modern dance. The 60s were turbulent, exciting times. The Vietnam War was on. Universities were fertile with rebellious ideas; literature and art were bursting out in new forms. ADT was part of this movement, and such composers as Richard Meale and Peter Sculthorpe, such artists as Albert Tucker, Lawrence Daws, Russell Drysdale and John Olsen, inspired Dalman. She wanted to develop an Australian dance style. She gained audiences and students in universities. She also gained South Australian government and Australia Council funding. By 1975, ADT had presented more than 70 works, 32 by Dalman herself, and toured nationally and overseas. Then, during a Sydney Opera House season, without warning the company board announced ADT would go into recess. Shattered, Dalman spent a decade in Italy, rearing her son, teaching, performing, founding a youth dance group. Always inspired by the Australian landscape, she returned to live on the shores of Lake George near Canberra, where she continues to teach, choreograph, dance and present works with her group, Mirramu. By the time Dalman returned, her successor, Jonathan Taylor, choreographer and dancer with London’s Ballet Rambert, had come and gone. When invited to head ADT, Taylor had not even heard of it. Despite a shaky start – he was bewildered by the lack of audiences in his early seasons, which included works by modern choreographers well known in England and America, though unfamiliar to Adelaide. But the quality of the dancers and productions was high and audiences grew. By 1980, ADT, now funded by both SA and Victoria, and for a time the Australia Council, had entered the world stage, becoming the first Australian arts group to appear at the Edinburgh Festival. Their debut piece was Taylor’s own spectacular Wildstars. Dalman’s style was basically American-European; Taylor’s went back to classical ballet, but also forward into the contemporary. By 1985, ADT Mark II had staged 65 works, 31 by Taylor or other ADT members, 28 by visitors and six by other Australians. Taylor introduced significant overseas choreographers, including Englishman Christopher Bruce, American Paul Taylor and internationalist Glen Tetley, whose Revelation and Fall, for the 1984 Adelaide Festival, went into several other companies’ repertoires. But in 1985, Taylor was shocked and offended when he was asked to apply to renew his contract. He left. ADT-CHerzfeld-BYS52 ADT’s Be Your Self, @ Chris Herzfeld, Camlight Productions With a 1986 Festival looming, it was an awkward time. The Festival director, Anthony Steel, took over ADT jointly with company rehearsal director Lenny Westerdijk. Steel had already commissioned Descent into the Maelstrom with a score by Philip Glass, who made his first Australian visit to conduct it and choreography by of-the-moment New Yorker Molissa Fenley. Leigh Warren, with a pedigree including the Australian Ballet, New York’s Juilliard School, Ballet Rambert, Nederlands Dans Theater and Nureyev and Friends, took up the reins in 1987, gaining a reputation as an inspirational teacher and, after Taylor’s English-influenced repertoire, intent on encouraging Australian choreographers; they included Kate Champion, Graeme Watson, Susan Peacock and Chrissie Parrott, and established people like Nanette Hassall, Graham Murphy and New Zealander Douglas Wright. As well, the ADT dancers appeared in State Theatre Company’s Cabaret in November 1991 and in October 1992 a season including William Forsythe’s formidable Enemy in the Figure. Not long after, and before the end of his contract, Warren got his marching orders to make way for Meryl Tankard and her group from Canberra. Like Warren, Tankard had been with the Australian Ballet, then went overseas, becoming a lead dancer with Pina Bausch’s Wuppertaler Tanzgruppe, returning to form her own company. Like Dalman and Taylor before him, Warren was shocked and bruised, but with six loyal ADT members he formed Leigh Warren and Dancers, developing a singular style, especially in collaborating with composers and musicians. He later said he was “enormously grateful” for the experience. “Now I really stand up for what I believe in.” He has since developed into a prize-winning opera director-choreographer. Tankard, one of the most original choreographic minds in Australian dance, produced highly imaginative work, at times of uneven quality. She nurtured a cogent, intelligent group of dancers, which she took abroad, and was particularly successful in Germany. But, partly because they were out of the country so much, Tankard also was dumped and in 1999 current director Garry Stewart was appointed. Stewart came late to dance, but choreographed his first piece as an Australian Ballet School student. He made his professional debut, interestingly enough, in ADT’s Descent into the Maelstrom in 1986, but went on to other small groups, to Madrid, to New York and back home to form his own company, Thwack, in 1999 before his ADT appointment. All the while he was developing his individual athletic, high energy, explosive style, which Dalman sees as very Australian, linked to our sporting culture. Stewart has been director of ADT for a record 16 years. Whatever the future holds for him and this oldest of Australia’s modern dance companies, a magnificent legacy remains from the ADT dancers who have gone on to influence dance both here and overseas. To name only a few: Cheryl Stock, Adjunct Professor at Queensland University of Technology and Secretary General of World Dance Alliance, John Nobbs and Jacqui Carroll, founders of OzFrank Theatre, Shaun Parker and Kate Champion, with their own companies, choreographers Mark Baldwin, Xiao-Xong-Zhang, the late Tanja Liedtke, Lina Limosani, Larissa McGowan, Daniel Jaber and Anthony Hamilton, and the many dancers who have taken their places in companies worldwide. Fifty years of vicissitude and achievement. May it be a Happy Birthday, ADT! ADT’s 50th anniversary events: Private function, Wednesday, June 10: A celebratory event on the official birthdate of Australian Dance Theatre at Adelaide Arcade (the location of ADT’s first studio). Hosted by Elizabeth Cameron Dalman and original members of the company, with Garry Stewart and members of the present ADT company in attendance. Public event at Dunstan Playhouse, Saturday, July 18: A performance of L by Elizabeth Cameron Dalman’s Mirramu Dance Company and an excerpt of Garry Stewart’s Be Your Self by the current ADT team. Australian National Dance Awards at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Saturday, September 12: Will feature ADT dancers performing excerpts of works, past and present, in celebration of its 50th birthday. November: 50th Anniversary ADT Book – Edited by Dr Maggie Tonkin of University of Adelaide, and published by Wakefield Press, this ‘coffee table’ book is a comprehensive history of the company. It will contain interviews and articles from all ADT’s past artistic directors and details of every production, and the dancers and creative teams that made the works.        Images: Elizabeth Dalman, photograph @Jan Dalman, Be Your Self, photograph, @ Chris Herzfeld, Camlight Productions.

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