Free from steps

Anne Thompson interviews choreographer and artistic director Meryl Tankard

This is the first of two articles on dance companies based in Adelaide as indicative of a range of dance discourses in Australia. In this issue, Anne Thompson interviews Meryl Tankard who, subsequent to this interview, won the Mobil Pegasus Award for her choreography of Inuk for the Meryl Tankard Australian Dance Theatre at the 14th International Summer Theatre Festival in Hamburg. In RealTime #22, Anne Thompson talks to Sally Chance, artistic director of the Restless Dance Company who will be shortly working in Melbourne with Candoco, a British company which also features dancers with disabilities. Candoco are guests of the Newimages Exchange program between Australia and Great Britain.

I am interested in articulating the discourses now available to dancers and choreographers. This interest is linked to my belief that the way we live and give meaning to our work and lives as artists depends on the range and social power of the discourses to which we have access.

I want to challenge the idea that there exists a universally understood truth about the nature of dance and dancing. I believe Australian dance culture to be a plurality of competing subcultures. I want to acknowledge the range of discourses now being used by Australian dancers and choreographers. I want to encourage the view that the use of a discourse can be a strategy.

This interview with Meryl Tankard raised many questions for me: What happens to the notions of “expression” and “originality” if an individual’s dancing is understood to be marked by aesthetic and cultural codes? What use is the concept of national identity for dancers? In what ways could this be defined as linking to birthplace, as aboriginality, as a conscious representation of cultural plurality? Is the dance we recognise as a representation of a culture or inner feeling, what we classify as authentic? How can we acknowledge our fascination with “other” cultures? How is the task of promoting dance on the national and international dance market shaping the way Australian dance artists think about dance?

AT How do you understand the mix of classicism/classical ballet and expressionism/modern dance in your work? Are these two dance traditions connected for you?

MT My training as a dancer has been in both classical and modern dance as I danced in the Australian Ballet and with Pina Bausch (Tanztheater Wuppertal). In some ways they feel like the opposite extreme of each other. I always felt as a ballet dancer that there was something missing, that there was something I couldn’t get out because I was too worried about getting the technique right.

But then on the other hand there is an amazing similarity of rigour and devotion required by the ballet and Pina’s dance theatre. The ballet was a sheltered world and we never saw or thought of anything else. When I entered Pina’s company I thought, “Great! Freedom at last!” And it was freeing to do her work. Yet there was, as with classical dance, an almost religious devotion to the art of dance. There couldn’t be anything else in your life. You could never say Pina was hard. She never yelled at anybody, but we were like monks. Giving up everything for dance was expected and we lived up to that expectation.

AT Does the drive inform your work?

MT I can’t watch work that is superficial.

AT What do you mean?

MT Work that doesn’t have a depth that comes from within. There is something that comes from inside and goes out through the body when we dance. So much dance works the other way. Dancing can be about vanity. “I’m so cute. My body is gorgeous. Look at me.” It can become vulgar. Movement, for me, has to be honest, truthful. If people have never experienced that way of dancing, they are free to work in other ways. Sometimes I find it aggravating that I can’t just indulge in movement. It might bring something else out in me. But I can’t just go into the studio and work on movement alone.

AT How would you explain what drives the creative process when you are making a work?

MT I feel fortunate to have worked with Pina, although at times it was hard. I will never find anyone like her again. I learned from her to ask questions of the dancers, to get them to use their own creativity. They are, after all, human beings, not objects. I learnt not to get dancers to just copy a step I can do or to move the way my body does. I think those days are gone. Dancers are creative. When the dancers use that creativity there is a commitment in the performing that is different from when dancers just do steps.

AT How do you select an answer? Is it to do with a dancer connecting to the question in some way?

MT I think so. When you see honesty it touches you. Sometimes I can’t even work out why I am touched. When a response is truthful, that dancer has a special energy that communicates. This dancing has nothing to do with the toe being pointed or the leg turned out. It’s so much more interesting. The voice is also interesting. You can’t lie with the voice. I don’t really think you can lie with movement either. You are totally exposed and vulnerable.

AT How do you then shape a work or put it together into its final form?

MT It is always scary and I go in there totally empty. It’s only when I’m watching that I can say “That goes with that!” You have a feeling for form but it is something subtle. I can’t express it in words.

But I do love the space. I’ve always loved space. Loved using every bit of it. In Pina’s work I would always run around the space. In Furioso (1993) the ropes allowed me to use space in a new way. That was exciting for me.

AT Surely this feeling for form is a product of your own dance history.

MT Discipline and a strong foundation in a dance style are important. It doesn’t have to be classical ballet. It may be something you reject but it will still be important.

AT But where would you place yourself as a choreographer?

MT Just before a show opens I always think, “I am not a choreographer.” I associate choreography with steps. I think that in Australia you are called a choreographer if you keep the dancers bounding around to the music, jumping up and down, turning and twisting. If you sit in a dark corner, people ask, “What’s that?” I’m not talking about audiences. I’m talking about critics. I’m not going to move just for movement’s sake.

AT How do you understand the relationship between the choreographer and the dancer?

MT I feel like I’ve gone through what they are going through. I’ve been guided and now I can guide them, unlock their creative powers, push. Some people resist this. Once you uncover their artistry a door is opened and they go through it. You can see them become so much more confident.

AT What are the ideal conditions in which to create dance?

MT Pina Bausch took three months to make a piece. Ideally it would be good to work, to have time to think and then complete the work.

AT So what about training? How do you view classical technique?

MT I don’t mind the technique. But I see no point in doing 19th century ballets. The ballets change when the choreographers are no longer around. They just get watered down. They’ve lost the choreographer’s inner connection with the movement. Ballets should also express what is happening now. When I created Aurora (1994), I came to love and respect the story. The critics went berserk because I tap-danced to Tchaikovsky. I wasn’t sending it up. I was really trying to work out how to tell that fairy tale.

I’m in a position now where a number of dancers I have worked with for four or five years want to leave and go to Europe. We constantly lose dancers from Australia to overseas. This means we don’t have a pool of dancers to choose from. I really think that Australia should allow foreign dancers to work here. There are many dancers in Europe who want to work with me and I think it would enrich the culture here if they could. It would give Australian dancers so much to work alongside them.

AT Do certain themes/concerns recur in your work?

MT Oh, life, love! Pina always said that all her pieces were about love. Though in the last piece I made, Inuk (1997), I felt a need to talk about the environment and Australia. Most of the critics didn’t see this and so didn’t know what the piece was about. I thought I was making a pretty obvious statement.

AT What are you saying?

MT When I came back from Europe, Australia seemed…vast. I was aware of the lack of support for the arts here. I felt alone. Pauline Hanson was on the scene! There are quite a few sections in the piece that comment on this situation. I had two Aboriginal dancers and a Maori boy in the piece. The last scene shows a Maori boy wanting to know about his background and his father laughing at him. It is quite hard.

A white girl plays the Maori boy. It ends with Sean, a white Australian, and Rachel, a beautiful, tall, Aboriginal girl, singing an Italian aria, “Give Us Peace!” For me, this said everything I wanted to say.

AT What have the company’s travels taught it about dance and its identity as an Australian dance company?

MT The promoter from Brooklyn Academy of Music said, “This work is not Australian. I refuse to promote it as such. It’s universal.” But when we took Furioso to Europe it was perceived as Australian. And it is. We are all Australians who create the work. It is hard to define what that is. Our last European tour was sold out and we’ve been invited back to Hamburg. So we must offer something different from what they are used to in Europe. That’s why they are excited by it. In Australia they say the work is very European. I think that’s why I did this last piece. I had to ask, “Where is home?” “Where is my home?”

AT What draws you to the song and dance of different cultures?

MT When I first arrived back from Europe I felt a need to understand this culture. Now I look to other cultures. They seem to have a reason for dancing. We’ve lost that.

AT You perceive there to be a connection between dance and social life in other cultures.

MT I think dance is a very natural activity and we should all be involved in it. Greek and Italian migrants brought a different relation to dance to Australia.

AT Did you feel there existed a relationship between dance and social ritual in Europe?

MT I felt it when I left Europe. These rituals don’t necessarily occur there any more. A beautiful Bulgarian artist said of Songs For Mara, “It has taken an Australian to remind us where we have come from.”

AT Would you like to raise anything?

MT I think it’s a pity that more people don’t write about dance. In Europe dance has more of a connection with other art forms. Australia is young and people are starting to write. I just wish more people would write. It is only then that a history will exist. I was cleaning out my bookshelves the other day and found seven books on Pina Bausch, written from very different perspectives.

RealTime issue #21 Oct-Nov 1997 pg. 11

© Anne Thompson; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 1997