A sigh of relief went through Restless Dance Theatre with the news that the company’s application for an Australia Council grant had been successful when so many others had lost out. The assurance of $1.2m over four years means plans for new works, invited choreographers and touring can now go ahead.
Celebrating its 25th year, Restless is the nation’s pre-eminent theatrical group presenting work inspired by cultures of disability. The company was founded in 1991 by Sally Chance, a community dance practitioner trained at London’s Laban Centre who had performed in the 1989 Come Out Festival, and it grew from Artery, a Carclew Youth Arts program for dance-interested young people. Chance had been working with a similar, but disabled group, and tried putting the two together. Success led to the evolution of what became Restless, which she saw as a place where it was an advantage to have a disability. She remained the artistic director until 2001, later directing Come Out. Chance left Restless in a very secure position. She had created eight imaginative full-length pieces, and established a methodology which encouraged the creativity of the disabled and non-disabled dancers themselves. By then, Nick Hughes had become company manager. He’d seen some of their performances, and “thought it was just fantastic work”. I asked him what he considered the major developments since then. “We’ve been developing professional work for touring” was his first reply, then: “the gradual increase in the skills of the dancers and in the quality of the work. It’s certainly taken a big leap forward with Michelle arriving.” Michelle is Michelle Ryan, appointed artistic director in 2013, former dancer with Meryl Tankard, but for some years in a wheelchair owing to multiple sclerosis. She is the first artistic director to have such a strong disability, and because of this, Hughes says she “brings a different perspective and understanding of the situation”. Her first work for the company, In the Balance (2014), will be seen again in this year’s Cabaret Festival (June 22 and 23). Meryl Tankard’s film about Ryan, Michelle’s Story, recently won three awards at the South Australian Film Awards, including best short film, to add to the audience award for best short film at the Adelaide Film Festival last year. No stranger to accolades herself, with presenting company Torque, Ryan won the 2015 Australian Dance Award for outstanding achievement in independent dance, “for an exquisite, compelling and immersive production exploring intimacy and human relationships within disability”. The company now has a Youth Ensemble, with about 12 mostly disabled performers aged 15-26, and a Senior Ensemble added in 2013 for members who had graduated from the younger group. Since the formation of the Senior group, several former Restless dancers have rejoined the company. A few other groups work with people with disability, mostly at the amateur level. Restless consistently achieves a professional standard, and the smaller works produced, such as Beauty (2010) and Salt (2014), are what Hughes calls bridges into professional work for senior dancers. Future collaborators will include Tankard, Larissa McGowan, Caroline Bowditch, Frantic Assembly (recent partner with State Theatre Company for Andrew Bovell’s Things I Know to be True), Zephyr Quartet and the Art Gallery of South Australia – an intriguingly mixed bunch. The company’s high quality is due not only to the directors, tutors and performers. Gaelle Mellis is a frequent designer, Geoff Cobham has lit many productions, live music by groups such as The Audreys all indicate reasons for the awards which adorn the company’s beautiful premises in Gilles Street, now with a completed new studio. Among them are a Ruby Award for sustained contribution by an organisation and the 2010 Australian Dance Award for Outstanding Achievement in Youth or Community Dance for Bedroom Dancing, an amusing, touching, thought-provoking work which placed 15 wall-less bedrooms throughout the vast space of the Queen’s Theatre. What we see in Adelaide is only part of Restless’s diversity. Its community workshop program allows outreach to regional areas, and work with people with special kinds of disadvantage, such as visual impairment and cultural difference. Then there are the films. Three made in 2008-2009, which premiered at the 2009 Adelaide Film Festival, have won awards at international festivals in Melbourne, New Zealand, New York and Calgary, and been shown at other festivals in such far-flung places as Russia, Portugal, Sweden and England. These were created with Adelaide’s Closer Productions, which last year collaborated again with Restless for Look Away, a video installation for the 24 Frames Per Second exhibition at Sydney’s Carriageworks. The breadth of achievement over 25 years is cause for much congratulation, and Restless is poised for even greater things to come. Artistic Director Ryan says that the security of funding has given her “the space to dream of the future, building on the rich past.” restlessdance.org