Michelle Ryan: Intimacy

Not your ordinary dancer’s life.

In January, Restless Dance Theatre moved into 195 Gilles Street, premises with big, light-flooding windows, wide corridors for wheelchairs and light switches down low. Specially built in 1985 for the now defunct Disability Information Research Centre, it is ideal for one of Australia’s leading theatre groups inspired by cultures of disability. Artistic director Michelle Ryan, in the job since January 2013, could hardly be happier. A thin, delicate figure sitting across the table from me in her roomy office, she tells me something about her extraordinary life. Ordinary enough at first, in Townsville, where she started dance lessons aged four with former Royal Ballet and Australian Ballet dancer Robyn Croft, tertiary dance at Queensland University of Technology, 18 months touring with dance education groups, and then a momentous change in 1990 on being accepted into Meryl Tankard’s company. Ryan grew to stardom during almost eight years with Tankard in Canberra and Adelaide, before working with her on Lloyd Webber’s The Beautiful Game in London and shows in Portugal. Tankard is of great significance to her professionally, and as a friend – “The biggest influence on me as an artist, and even now how I create works”, she says, “because I spent seven-and-a-half years dancing for her and creating all the works we did with her, especially here in Adelaide.” (Tankard led Australian Dance Theatre 1993–99.) “I really connected with the way she got the emotion out of the dancers; but there was also a sense of play and fun… Then I worked as her assistant and I appreciated her level of detail. She’s a perfectionist and I have a similar kind of way [of working]. She expected a lot from us, and in my position with Restless I expect the same high standards from my dancers. I set the bar high for them, and they come up to it.’ It was when she was in Berlin with her then partner Gavin Webber that she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), an incurable disease of the central nervous system – devastating news for a dancer. “I’m very close to my family,” she says. “One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do was to call my Mum and Dad and tell them that I had had this diagnosis.” She came home within a couple of months. “It takes away your whole identity. I was 30 by this stage. I’d been a dancer professionally for 10 years.” Needing to step away from dance she took a naturopathy course (and did very well) but her health ‘plummeted’ and she had to take to a wheelchair. However, she picked herself up, and with Webber and other ex-Tankard friends began producing works, including the outstanding Lawn (2005), which had had its beginnings in Berlin. For five years she worked with Townsville-based DanceNorth in several capacities, but then, in 2011, through Tankard, she was invited by Alain Patel of Belgian Company C del B to be a guest artist in his Out of Context – For Pina at the Brisbane festival. She was to sit with the audience, walk on stage and perform a five-minute seated solo from Tankard’s Songs with Mara and then something of her own. “It was pretty terrifying at the time,” she remembers. She was after all 40, an age by which most dancers have retired, and as well she had to use a stick to walk. When Patel asked what she was afraid of and she said she was scared she would fall over, his answer was, “Wouldn’t you just get up and keep going?” She did the performance, did not fall over, and, she says with a marvellous smile, “I could do it! My soul felt free again! This is what I used to do, and I can still do it!” And it led to a renewed stage career, next with Take up Thy Bed and Walk, a group piece created by Restless designer Gaelle Mellis and presented here by Vitalstatistix in October 2012. Now there is Intimacy, made in collaboration with Ross Ganf and ex-Tankard colleagues Ingrid Weisfelt and Vincent Crowley for their company Body Torque. Is Intimacy about disability, I wondered? Is it about her? “A little bit about me,” she says after a pause for thought, “but it’s not about disability – it’s not literal… Dancers rarely show our vulnerable side, our fragility. And with Intimacy, what I hope – it’s not a sad story – I’ve realised over many years that I am really a very strong person but I appear very fragile because of my physicality. I think that’s a real strength in the work.” The music is by Emma Bathgate, “a larger than life” singer, and guitarist Simon Ezeky. “The whole piece is an interaction between four people” – herself, Crowley and the two musos. Premiered in Melbourne in August 2014, in September it went to London, gaining excellent reviews as part of the Unlimited Festival celebrating the artistry of the disabled. And on September 12 this year Intimacy won the Australian Dance Award for outstanding achievement for independent dance. Now Intimacy is coming to Adelaide, giving us an unmissable opportunity to appreciate once again the artistry of Michelle Ryan.  

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