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Contemporary dance in Australia

Contemporary dance uses the body's natural lines and energy to create new movements which have a greater range and fluidity than conventional dance.

Tasdance, 'One for Sorrow, Two for Joy', 2008. Image courtesy of Tasdance.

In Australia, contemporary dance has its origins in modern dance, taught and promoted through the Australian Dance Theatre by Elizabeth Cameron Dalman from 1965–75. Contemporary dance is seen as less prescriptive in its structure than classical or even modern dance. It was developed as a reaction against the more rigid techniques of ballet. However, contemporary dance shares similar characteristics with the first wave of ballet in Australia. Both draw on collaborations with contemporary musicians, visual artists and photographers with the intention of creating a new and invigorating medium.

The ease of movement promoted by contemporary dance technique means that is it accessible for beginners as well as allowing experienced dancers to push new boundaries of body movement. Partners can improvise using the natural movement of the body, characterised by weight exchange, fluid movement and touch. (Blackfish Arts Academy, Dance)

Contemporary dance is characterised by its versatility. It can be danced to almost any style of music, or united with other dance forms to create new styles of movement. It can include site-specific works and the movements are often visually arresting. The dance addresses current contemporary cultural themes, often in a global context, and is deliberately open to audience interpretation and interaction. It often references other cultural forms, especially with visual and contemporary arts, theatre, film, music and lighting.

'Contemporary dance' has different meanings in different places. Different terms are used: modern dance, post-modern dance, 'new' dance, experimental dance, dance improvisation and contact improvisation as well as other terms in different languages. It is not contemporary artists and companies working in the fields of classical ballet, modern ballet, jazz dance, show dance or other forms of popular dance.

Portrait of Meryl Tankard

Regis Lansac, Portrait of Meryl Tankard, 1984. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: an23737537.

The contemporary dance movement began in Australia in the mid-1970s with artists like Carole Johnson, teaching regular contemporary dance classes in Sydney in 1974. Johnson had toured with the Eleo Pomare Company from New York in 1972. Contemporary dancers Nanette Hassall and Russell Dumas founded the Dance Exchange in 1976. In the mid-1980s, Australian choreographer Meryl Tankard tapped into this new wave of contemporary dance, crossing traditional and modern dance boundaries. She combined the visual arts with dance, often with no reference to actual dance at all.

Since the mid-1970s, there have been over 25 Australian contemporary dance companies. In 2010 there are at least 15 established contemporary dance groups in Australia and the list of contemporary dancers and choreographers is ever growing. Today Australia's contemporary dance companies tour extensively overseas in Europe, the Americas, India, Asia and the Pacific with outreach dance programs and cultural exchanges.

Meryl Tankard

Meryl Tankard is one of Australia's finest contemporary dancers who began her career as a dancer with the Australian Ballet. After three years she left the company to join Pina Bausch's ensemble the Tanztheater Wuppertal. Tankard danced with the company as a principal soloist for a period of ten years, dividing her time between Europe and Australia. In 1986 she devised and directed Travelling Light and in 1988 she created her evening-length solo work Two Feet, based on the life of Olga Spessivtzeva, who toured Australia in 1934, collaborating with photographer and visual artist Regis Lansac.

chants de mariage II 1992

Regis Lansac, Rehearsal for 'Chants de Mariage II', Gorman House Studio, Left to Right: Michelle Ryan, Tuula Roppola, Rochelle Carmichael and Sarah Chifley 1992. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: an23737430

Tankard returned to Australia to found the Meryl Tankard Company in Canberra in 1989, until 1992. From 1993 to 1999 Tankard directed the Australian Dance Theatre, renaming it the Meryl Tankard Australian Dance Theatre: a dynamic, versatile company. In addition to re-working a number of her earlier pieces, such as Chants de Mariage (1992), she also created a series of new works that included Furioso (1993), Aurora (1994), Possessed (1995), Rasa (1996), Seulle (1997) and Inuk (1997).

Tankard's signature piece Furioso epitomises her work which is seen as a 'nuanced, sometimes poetic, sometimes fierce production of dense choreographic invention'.

There's this really subtle moment that I look out for every time. But people come to the show and they don't even see it. That's why a lot of people come back a second time and say, 'Oh, you've changed it.' And I say, 'No, I haven't changed a thing. You're looking at it differently'.
Interview with Meryl Tankard by Michelle Potter, 1996.

Meryl Tankard has continued to work for a variety of dance companies in Australia and overseas including other commissions such as Deep Sea Dreaming, for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. In 2009 she created The Oracle for the talents of Paul White, set to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.

1970s – pure movement

Nanette Hassall teaching at WAAPA

Jon Green, Nanette Hassall teaching at WAAPA, 2004. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: vn3101867.

In the 1970s, new contemporary dance companies grew out of the modern dance movement and focussed on movement and lines of energy.

The choreography of Russell Dumas is about movement as an form independent artform. Much of it is performed in silence, posing questions rather than offering prescriptive answers. In 1976, with Nanette Hassall, he founded the Sydney-based company Dance Exchange, which he continues to direct. In 1985, he also established the Dancelink program bringing many dance teachers and artists to Australia. Dumas began his career with the J. C. Williamson organisation and later danced with a wide range of overseas companies including the Ballet Rambert, an English company which toured Australia in 1947–49.

Sydney Dance Company was founded in 1969 by dancer Suzanne Musitz. From 1976–2007 it was led by artistic director Graeme Murphy and his wife and associate director Janet Vernon. Sydney Dance is now run by Rafael Bonachela, who describes himself as a 'movement junkie' with the exploration and experimentation of pure movement as his motivation.

1980s – abstract theatre and projected effects

buzz dance theatre

Buzz Dance Theatre, 'Depth Charge', 2009. Image courtesy of Buzz Dance Theatre.

In the 1980s contemporary dance blended abstraction with theatricality with companies such as Buzz Dance and Legs on the Wall performing physically confronting theatre and acrobatics. Projected images, video and lighting effects were widely used.

Tasdance was established in 1981 in Launceston as Australia's first dance in-education company, under the artistic direction of Jenny Kinder. Tasdance has broadened its role to include more activity in theatre-based performance, dancer development and community work. The company has a national profile and received a Sidney Myer Performing Arts Award in 2008. Annie Greig is artistic director of Tasdance.

Nanette Hassall founded Dance Works in 1983 to provide an arena for the production of Australian choreography by emerging Australian choreographers. When Hassall left the company in 1989, dancers Beth Shelton and Helen Herbertson jointly shared the directorship from 1989 to 1991, developing a strong community focus. Dance Works folded in mid 2006 but is still highly respected today.

Artistic director Patrick Nolan started Legs on the Wall in Sydney in 1984. Legs blends theatre, dance and circus acrobatics and also has an international following, touring Europe, Asia and North and South America.

Buzz Dance Theatre emerged in Perth in 1985. It was originally a pilot program, founded by dancer Derek Holtzinger, but was so successful that it is still running today under artistic director Cadi McCarthy. It focuses on theatre for children, using contemporary dance, music, theatre and design to encourage audience participation.

Dancenorth, situated in Townsville, became a professional company when Cheryl Stock took directorship from 1985 to 1995. In 1997, Jane Pirani was the fourth Artistic Director to be appointed and led the company for eight years, touring to Japan, China and around Australia. It tours nationally and internationally and holds community outreach and cultural exchange programs with countries in the South East Asian region. Today it is run by artistic director Raewyn Hill.

expressions dance company

Expressions Dance Company, 'Behind the wall', 2001. Image courtesy of Expressions Dance Company.

Expressions Dance Company was founded in 1984 in Brisbane by Maggi Sietsma and Abel Valls. Expressions blends abstraction with theatricality utilising speech, dance and visual media. Expressions has toured across the United States, Europe, Mexico, New Caledonia and Asia. Natalie Weir was appointed artistic director in 2009. Expressions was nominated for the Outstanding Performance category at the 2010 Dance Awards.

Chrissie Parrott is one of Australia's most significant artistic directors and visionary choreographers, combining classical and contemporary dance. Chrissie Parrott's dance career started with the West Australian Ballet in the 1970s with her first choreographic work made in 1976 and her first commissioned piece in 1978, before travelling overseas. The Chrissie Parrott Dance Company was established in 1986. Recently, Parrott collaborated with composer Jonathan Mustard on Metadance in Resonant Light. This piece blended dance, music and images—including projected dancers, video and lighting effects—to encourage audience participation.

The desire by Indigenous people for training as professional dancers precipitated the development of the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association (NAISDA) in 1988. Bangarra Dance Theatre, an offshoot of NAISDA, was established in 1989, and the Aboriginal/Islander Dance Theatre in 1992. All of these companies saw their creative leadership come from trained Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dancers.

1990s – post-colonial with subtlety of experience

Bangarra Dance Theatre

Shane Reid, Bangarra Dance Theatre 'Strings' from Unaipon, Courtesy of Adelaide Bank 2004 Festival of Arts and the Bangarra Dance Theatre.

Stephen Page, artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre, is yet another Australian choreographer fascinated with breaking the boundaries of preconceived notions of dance. While Bangarra is driven by the cultural and spiritual values Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander ceremony and performance, it creates dance that is artistically innovative.

Bangarra has created a range of internationally critically acclaimed works: Fire, Clan, Ochre, Spirit, Bush and Mathinna. At the 2009 Helpmann Awards, Mathinna won Best Ballet or Dance Work, Best Choreography in a Dance or Physical Theatre Production and Best Original Score. Stephen Pages works have both classical and modern elements but have mostly been about understanding dance from a unique urban Indigenous perspective.

Restless Dance Company is run by artistic director Michelle Ryan in Adelaide. It is one of Australia's leading youth dance companies. It has worked since 1991 with people with and without an intellectual disability to create dance theatre and run workshop programs driven by the participants with a disability.

Restless is a place where it is an advantage to have a disability They are redefining the nature of dance in their terms. Performance works take as their themes issues in the lives of the dancers but are never 'about' living a life with disability or 'about' inequality. Rather, they engage audiences with broader human themes.
Restless Dance Company website, 2009

Paul Mercurio is best known for his leading roles in the film Strictly Ballroom and Dancing with the Stars. But Mercurio is also a contemporary choreographer. Between 1992 and 1998, he established the Australian Choreographic Ensemble (ACE), which included film and contemporary dance. It toured cities and regional centres, performing in proscenium spaces and venues including historic houses and outdoor areas.

Portrait of Paul Mercurio

Angela Lynkushka, Portrait of Paul Mercurio, 1992-1993. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia: an11032057-1.

Leigh Warren has been artistic director of Leigh Warren & Dancers in Adelaide since 1993. His work combines movement and music with visual technology. Warren has received numerous awards including the Ruby Award for Sustained Contribution by an Individual in 2007 and the Adelaide Critics' Circle Award in 2005.

Choreographer Gideon Obarzanek opened Chunky Move in association with Garry Stewart in 1995 in Southbank, Melbourne. The company was inspired by the need for a place for young choreographers to work without restriction: an environment that did not adhere to a particular dance form. It included installations, site-specific work and film as well as more traditional-style stage productions of classical and modern dance.

Freelance Australian choreographer and dancer Natalie Weir began her training in classical ballet with Ann Roberts. But she soon realised classical ballet alone was too inhibiting, saying, 'all classical dance is inhuman in a way'. She later moved into contemporary dance, choreographing for Dance North and Expressions.

Portrait of Padma Menon

George Serras, Portrait of Padma Menon, 1995, black and white photograph. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: an13139729.

Indian-born Padma Menon collaborated with Meryl Tankard in 1996 on Rasa. Menon began dancing in Hyderabad in 1973 before working with Vempati Chinna Satyam in the Kuchipudi-style. After moving to Canberra in 1988, Menon established a school of Indian Dance, known as the Kailash Dance Company in 1993, reopened in Sydney in 1998 as Mudra Dance. Menon has also studied post-modern techniques in Sydney with Russell Dumas as well as theatre directing and Butoh with Nigel Kellaway. In 2008 Menon returned to Canberra, establishing the Mudra Centre for Dance.

Artistic directors Gerard van Dyck and Kate Denborough established Kage in North Melbourne in 1997. The company describes itself as technically rigorous and visually striking dance theatre, which becomes a platform for work about the subtlety of experience and the millions of gigantic-yet-tiny, deeply felt, funny and ultimately connected moments that make up our lives.

Richard James Allen formed The Physical TV Company in 1997. Artistic Directors Richard James Allen and Karen Pearlman make 'stories told by the body'. This film and video company presented works in dance, film, literature and new media, creating unique integrations of screen and dance arts. The award-winning works have been broadcast in Australia, Europe, China and the USA and screened at more than two hundred Australian and international film and dance film festivals.

wu-lin-tiger-dance 1999

Jim Hooper, Performers from the Wu Lin Dance Theatre in the production 'Journey of the Northern Tiger', 1999. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: vn3547321.

Sun Ping and Tina Yong are artistic directors of Wu Lin Dance Theatre, established in 1997. It comprises cross-cultural contemporary dance with Chinese and Australian dance traditions, often creating narrative works incorporating video and live music. The theatre also performs in schools to engage children in making dance pieces on identity, culture and race and teaching Chinese classical and folk dances.

Igneous, formed in 1997, is a collaboration between James Cunningham and Suzon Fuks. It comprises multimedia, dance, theatre, installation and movement-based videos and aims to engage interaction with other artists. It has toured Australia, India, Belgium, France, Germany, Canada and the UK.

Artistic director Phillip Adams runs BalletLab in Southbank, Melbourne. The award-winning company first opened with a sell-out season in 1998. The company tours locally, nationally and internationally including China, Scotland, Germany, England, Korea, Mongolia, Romania, Bulgaria and the US. BalletLab combines the visual impact of the movement with provocative conceptual–based imagery and design.

While retaining the essence and structure of theatrical dance techniques, BalletLab's work pushes the boundaries of their performance context. Blending, juxtaposing and twisting classical, romantic, baroque and contemporary dance forms, these virtuosic generational ballets invent movement vocabularies that reference contemporary culture.
BalletLab website, 2006

Kathryn Dunn in rehearsal for Gideon Obarzanek's Fast Idol.

Derek Biermann, Kathryn Dunn in rehearsal for Gideon Obarzanek's Fast Idol, 1995. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: an13291205.

2000s – multi-disciplinary and cross-cultural

Lucy Guerin is a freelance choreographer and contemporary dancer who established Lucy Guerin Inc in 2002. She has choreographed and collaborated on an array of work with Chunky Move, Michael Kantor, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and the Australian Opera. She has also received numerous awards including the 2006 Helpmann Award for Best Dance Work.

The founder of modern dance in Australia, Elizabeth Cameron Dalman, has been artistic director of Mirramu Dance Company, assisted by dancer and choreographer, Vivienne Rogis, in Bungendore since 2002. Mirramu is an Australian-based contemporary dance company, which presents work in both traditional and alternative venues.

[We] believe in sharing and communicating through the creative process, inviting artists from different disciplines to guest with the company. Much of its work is done in an inter-disciplinary and cross-cultural context with high levels of community involvement via workshops, forums and events associated with each professional production.
Mirramu Dance Company, 2009

Force Majeure The Age Im In

Force Majeure, 'The Age I'm In', 2010. Image courtesy of Force Majeure.

Force Majeure was honoured at the Australian Dance Awards in 2009. The company communicates about contemporary life by breaking the boundaries between artforms and physicality. It includes actors, dancers, artists, writers, visual artists and filmmakers.

Emerging significant contemporary dancers recognised at the 2009 Dance Awards include: Kristina Chan, nominated for Outstanding Performance by a Female Dancer for her work in Tanja Liedtke's Construct. Reed Luplau is a new Australian choreographer and member of Sydney Dance Company who won Outstanding Performance by a Male Dancer.

Tracks Dance Mr Big 2006 Photo Peter Eve

Tracks Dance, 'Mr Big', 2006. Photo by Peter Eve. Image courtesy of Tracks Dance Company.

Northern Territory dance group Tracks Dance Company received the Outstanding Achievement in Youth or Community Dance at the 2009 Ausdance awards. Run by artistic directors David McMicken and Tim Newth in Darwin, Tracks produces innovative, large-scale outdoor performances that bring together participants from diverse cultures and artistic disciplines.

Milpirri is a collaboration between the Warlpiri people of Lajamanu, in the north west Tanami desert and the Darwin based Tracks, which has developed as a biennial event.

Milpirri celebrates Indigenous culture in a spectacular dance performance featuring over 300 performers. From breakdancing to traditional dance forms, the dance of elders and youth came together. Milpirri 05 explored reconciliation and atonement. Milpirri 07 celebrated the change between boy and manhood, mothers and sons, milk and meat. Milpirri 2009 is all about law and order.

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Last updated: 27th August 2013
Creators: Gillian Freeman, et al.

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