Garry Stewart in Pole position after 20 years at Australian Dance Theatre

The Tromso seed bank and Mawson’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole inspire a double bill with the underlying theme of climate change.

Garry Stewart, artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre, is a choreographer with a strong social conscience and a fine sense of history. He is also a generous collaborator. His new work, South, is half of a double bill, North/South, which has an underlying theme of climate change. His material is Douglas Mawson’s 1912 South Pole expedition, which resulted in the icy deaths of two of his companions.

Wanting to match this with a story from the opposite side of the planet, Stewart was directed by a theatre director to Norwegian choreographer Ina Christel Johannessen, who has her own company and was the resident choreographer with Carte Blanche, the national contemporary dance company of Norway. But she has recently been artist in residence at the Global Seed Vault at Svalbard. The Vault contains over a million seeds and was recently accessed by Syria. Johannessen’s latest piece, which Stewart flew over to see, premiered in the Arctic town of Tromso.

“It’s a beautiful work,” he says, “not just about the seeds and plants, but about humanity.” Her choreographic style is very different to his, and one of his “really good” ideas was to see “how different the works would be”. “We’re seeing how we respond to the different polar regions of the planet. Our own distinctive voices come through. I always wanted that dialogue with a choreographer from the northern hemisphere, particularly someone who lives within the Arctic Circle.”

Ina Christel Johannessen (Photo: Nora Angeltveit)
Ina Christel Johannessen (Photo: Nora Angeltveit)

He also wanted to apply for a residency with the Australian Antarctic Division in Antarctica, but couldn’t because he is asthmatic. He has, however, spoken with several “amazing” people who have worked there and also worked with one of the finest dramaturges in the world, Ruth Little, an Australian based in London whose clients have included the likes of Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Asked what dramaturges do in dance, he explains that they bring ideas that a choreographer might not think of. They can expand the work, helping to shape it, making choices about what stays in, what goes out.

For his own part, he read a lot about Mawson, particularly of course the explorer’s own massive account, The Home of the Blizzard (1915). “He was British,” he says, “and very restrained, very austere. Not very forthcoming with his feelings. He had a really horrendous experience – the sense of responsibility of losing two of your men, and he was left behind ­– ‘Should I continue or should I not?’”

There is no dialogue in North/South, but a quote from a letter read 100 years later at the end is very poignant, and somehow rather ironic. Mawson observes that the Antarctic is limitless. “It must have been akin to going to the moon,” remarks Stewart, “or Mars or some other planet. Then the earth did seem limitless, and now it is so much smaller, and because it was so huge it didn’t matter if we despoiled something. And now the population keeps on growing and its impact on the environment means that the earth is getting much more fragile.”

Asked about collaborating with others, he says, “You can’t make these works in a vacuum. “One of the great joys [of collaboration] is to bring people together who would not necessarily be in the same room.”

Does this inspire him?

“Yes! I make works about subject matter that I’m fascinated with. It comes initially from something very personal – I have an idea then breaking that open, entering into that space and finding out what’s inside it, and how you can manifest it through the body and other media.”

Global Seed Vault at Longyearbyen in Svalbard, Norway (Photo: ginger_polina_bublik / Shutterstock)

Stewart is celebrating his twentieth year with Australian Dance Theatre – he is by far the longest serving artistic director of the company. He came to dance late, when he was 20, “blown away” when he saw Poppy, Graeme Murphy’s interpretation of Jean Cocteau’s life. He gave up his studies at Sydney University and worked at anything to make enough to see as much dance as he could, beginning lessons with Margaret Chapple at the Bodenwieser Studio, then Sydney’s leading modern dance centre. Realising he needed classical training, he was (to his great surprise) accepted into the Australian Ballet School in Melbourne when he was 22.

Before completing the three-year course he joined ADT, making his professional début in A Descent into the Maëlstrom, commissioned by Anthony Steel for the 1986 Adelaide Festival from American choreographer Molissa Fenley and composer Philip Glass, an intense, fast-moving work. In 1987 he went to the Queensland Ballet, then in 1988 to One Extra Company in Sydney. Then to Spain, where he realised he wanted to choreograph rather than dance, back to Sydney and a piece for Chunky Move, and in 1997 an Australia Council grant took him to New York. Back home, he created Birdbrain, a small deconstruction of Swan Lake, for the Victorian College of the Arts and formed his own company, Thwack, then in 1999 came his appointment as artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre.

Members of the Australian Dance Theatre company rehearse South (Photo: Sven Kovac)Members of the Australian Dance Theatre company rehearse South (Photo: Sven Kovac)

His first work in the new job, Housedance, had an audience of two billion or so, beamed worldwide on New Year’s Eve 1999 from the main sail of the Sydney Opera House. He slung six dancers and a violinist on ropes from the sail, performing his very physical, acrobatic choreography. Quite a beginning. Since then he has created 20 works for ADT for stage, screen and public places such as Sydney’s Martin Place, and toured extensively. For his latest, The Beginning of Nature, premiered in its completed form in Bogotá, Colombia, and since seen worldwide, he collaborated with composer Brendan Woithe, Kaurna man Jack Buckskin, the Zephyr String Quartet and two vocalists singing libretto in the Kaurna language.

He has won many awards, for himself, the company, and individual dancers, including three Helpmann awards. In April this year the company presented Anthology, a program of excerpts from seven of his works in its own theatre, the Odeon, in Queen Street Norwood – an excellent idea.

Asked what he considers his greatest achievement of those 20 years, Stewart hardly pauses before he says “Surviving!” Fortunately for us, he has done a great deal more than merely survive, and long may he do so.

North/South
Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre
11-14 September
adt.org.au

Header image:
Kimball Wong, Garry Stewart, Zoë Dunwoodie (Photo: Sven Kovac)

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