This clip shows a sign outside the premises of the Meryl Tankard Australian Dance Theatre in Adelaide, in 1995. Meryl Tankard, then artistic director of the theatre, describes her approach to dance and her techniques for working with dancers. The interview is intercut with footage of dancers in rehearsal with various props, including brooms and hats, and also interacting with Tankard. Shaun Parker, a member of the corps de ballet, describes Tankard’s problem-solving strategies.
Educational value points
- Born in Darwin, Meryl Tankard grew up in Melbourne, Penang (Malaysia), Newcastle and Sydney. She joined the Australian Ballet School in 1973 and the Australian Ballet in 1975. By 1977 she was also choreographing, and between 1978 and 1984 she danced for Pina Bausch’s German Tanztheater Wuppertal as a principal artist, performing in several acclaimed works and touring internationally. In 1992, on her return to Australia, she took up directorship of the Australian Dance Theatre before becoming a freelance choreographer in 1998.
- Tankard’s approach to working with dancers is collaborative and personal, inviting them to own the works by using their bodies and their idiosyncrasies as inspiration. Her dancers are therefore involved in the creation of the choreography, and the open, warm relationship she shares with them is evidenced in the rehearsal scenes of the ballet Sleeping Beauty.
- The footage captures an important time in the history of the Australian Dance Theatre. Meryl Tankard’s name was only associated with the theatre until 1998, when a dispute with the board and the South Australian arts minister about future directions of the company led to her departure. This documentary, made in 1995, shows Tankard at a high point of her involvement.
- Tankard’s style combines raw Australian energy and humour with European influences, such as that of Pina Bausch (1940–), the German choreographer who controversially used violently physical choreography and blurred the line between dancer and role.
- Tankard’s talents have led to a range of high-profile commissions, such as her creation Deep Sea Dreaming for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, a short work showcasing the history of the pearl for Tiffany and Co, and the Broadway musical Tarzan for Disney in 2006.
- The documentary contributes to coverage of Australia’s dance scene. Although Australia’s cultural achievements in the area are little known by the general public, there is a range of internationally acclaimed dance companies based in Australia, including the Australian Dance Theatre, the Australian Ballet, Bangarra Dance Company and Chunky Move. While the companies receive some funding from the Australia Council, they also rely on sponsorships and donations. The performing arts culture in Australia thrives despite receiving much less public support than areas of entertainment such as sport.
- The clip presents the work of Australian director Don Featherstone, who is a respected documentary maker. His films include Babakuieria, An Imaginary Life and The One Percenters. The Meryl Tankard documentary is from his series on talented artists titled Creative Spirits. Other films in the series include Difficult Pleasure: A Portrait of Brett Whiteley (1989) and Smart’s Labyrinth (1994).
This clip starts approximately 29 minutes into the documentary.
The shot is on the second floor of a building the sign for ‘Meryl Tankard Australian Dance Theatre on the left to the right and below is the main street with cars and shops. We see rehearsals of Sleeping Beauty, dancers in costume. Interview with Meryl Tankard, we see postcard images of art on the walls behind her. In a the studio more dancers are rehearsing there is country folk music playing in the background.
Meryl Tankard I really tried to, for each piece, to create a new vocabulary. I came away from ballet and I came away from Pina and I thought ‘I don’t want to use Pina’s vocabulary, I don’t want to use the ballet of vocabulary. If I start with the dancer’s bodies and try and develop those movements or create those movements out of each individual, which takes a long time, um, I hope that it will have a different vocabulary for each work. I’ve just asked some question, I asked the dancers how they would move if they had a wooden leg and how they would move – if they wanted to greet someone with a hat. See, if I said to them, ‘do a peasant dance’, ‘be a peasant’, I’d never get it.
Five male dancers a creating choreography while Meryl and another woman are looking on and laughing and talking.
Meryl I suppose every time I create a dance, it’s – I try to create it from movements you do every day. I usually take a little bit from each dancer, one movement from each dancer and then make a dance out of that. So each dancer has contributed to that.
Interview with Shaun Parker, dancer.
Shaun Parker Meryl doesn’t come in and tell us exactly what to do. She doesn’t dictate to us what we have to do. Basically, we get posed with problems and we just solve it and come up with our own response to that and Meryl will see what she likes and craft it.
Interview with Meryl with rehearsals in the studio continuing, men and women in hats, the men have wheelbarrows and trolleys.
Meryl They’ll be the through line in the piece really. So whatever happens, there’ll always be the farmers and the gardeners and they’ll always be there, working in the garden, whether there’s princes or not.