Australian Dance Theatre looks back on Garry Stewart’s two decades as artistic director with a best-of program showcasing Stewart’s demanding, revelatory choreographic vision.
When he was appointed artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre (ADT), the country’s oldest modern dance company, Garry Stewart thought he might stay in Adelaide three or four years. Instead, in 2019 he celebrated 20 eventful years in the post with a preview and a gala, Anthology, consisting of excerpts from seven of his works. This was the fine idea of the company’s executive director, Eira Swaine, and a good one it was, being turned into a fundraiser with canapés and desserts from Out in the Paddock and Henschke wines. Elizabeth Cameron Dalman, who founded the company in 1965, and is still dancing and choreographing at over 80, was in the audience.
Stewart, by far the longest serving head of ADT, graciously dedicated the evening to the memory of one of his predecessors, Jonathan Taylor, artistic director from 1976 to 1985, who recently died in Melbourne.
The program began with a taste of Birdbrain, an affectionate deconstruction of Swan Lake, which premiered in the 2000 Adelaide Festival and introduced audiences in Adelaide and later overseas to Stewart’s high-octane movement vocabulary. Critics have given it such labels as ‘explosive’, ‘wracked’, ‘visceral’, ‘daring’, ‘dangerous’ and ‘ballistic’. Stewart himself told the London Times’ critic Debra Craine that his choreography is ‘an incredibly dextrous physical form, which is equivalent to sport’ and that his work was ‘about the execution of extreme virtuosity and taking the body into an entirely new realm’. In Birdbrain he mostly did away with the narrative, but put his dancers into T-shirts, with characters’ names – ‘Sieg’ and ‘Fried’, ‘Hero’, ‘Lover’, for example. Helpful hints to the story occasionally flash up on a screen, and on one occasion a soloist combines rapid break dance and classical mime to summarize the plot. The cygnets begin decorously enough but rapidly become wrestlers flinging themselves at, through and around each other while remaining firmly attached. The Guardian’s Judith Mackrell remarked that part of the work’s ‘considerable comedy derives from [Stewart’s] knowing and often loving manipulation of the original choreography’, and John Perceval wrote in the Independent that ‘Birdbrain is fun, but not only fun’.
Stewart is a restless thinker, and The Age of Unbeauty (2002) expressed his deep concern with human fragility, torture and cruelty. Collaboration with a robotics designer led to Devolution (2006), placing the dancers in relationships with machines and eventually appearing to grow metal, glass and plastic prosthetic limbs. Then in 2008 he returned to the classics with G, a deconstruction of Giselle, co-produced by Théatre de la Ville in Paris, a city which loves his work. For Be Your Self (2010) he turned to 18th-century concepts of mind and body and modern neurobiological research for material. In 2012 came Proximity, a fascinating piece in which he collaborated with a video engineer to create a conversation between dance and real-time video. In another pioneering work, The Beginning of Nature, first developed in 2016, premiered in its completed form in Bogotá, Colombia, and seen worldwide since, Stewart collaborated with composer Brendan Woithe, Kaurna man Jack Buckskin, the Zephyr String Quartet and two vocalists singing a libretto in the Kaurna language. It is distinguished by particularly beautiful use of the arms.
Excerpts from each of the above were performed with all the energetic and indefatigable athleticism that Stewart demands of his dancers – and his choreography is very often exceedingly demanding. This was a program which highlighted his innovative invention, and a reminder of the excellence of the dancers, some of whom have been dancing with ADT for over a decade, others who have returned for a while from overseas companies, others who are new recruits. It was a night to remember.
Anthology was performed at The Odeon, Norwood on Thursday, April 4
G performed by Rowan Rossi, Thomas Fonua, Zoë Dunwoodie, Kimball Wong, Harrison Elliott (Photo: Oliver Toth at Accent Photography.)