April 01, 1993

A New Name and Renewed Purpose

Murray Bramwell talks with Meryl Tankard and Regis Lansac about what’s afoot at ADT.

We are sitting in the Red Ochre Grill, Gouger Street billabong for the Australian Dance Theatre. Or as it now is- the Meryl Tankard Australian Dance Theatre. Along with the eponymous Meryl is her partner and creative associate Regis Lansac and ADT administrator Rainer Jozeps. In between stabs at the emu pate Tankard and Lansac talked about preparation for the company’s season and their views on dance in general.

Meryl Tankard is disarmingly straight-forward about herself and her work. Despite her travels she retains a broad eastern states accent and with it an easy, almost reticent manner. She gives the unmistakable impression of someone who’d rather be doing things than talking about them but there’s nothing haughty or precious about that and certainly no reluctance to explain herself.

And, as anyone who hasn’t been in cryonic suspension already knows, Meryl Tankard has impressive credentials both as a dancer and choreographer. She began in 1972 with a three year stint in the Australian Ballet touring Europe and the US. Then in 1978 she joined the legendary Pina Bausch Tanztheater in Wuppertal, West Germany.

“When I found Pina,” she recalls excitedly, “it was like a miracle. She just took me into the company straight away. I felt like I was meant to be there.”
Apart from Bausch’s innovative, highly theatrical approach to movement , Tankard imbibed the idea that technique alone was not enough.

“There had to be a reason. You don’t just get up and dance because you can all dance so well. You have to ask `Why are you dancing ? What’s behind that movement ?’ So every time I create a movement now it has to come from an emotional point. I sometimes come home and say to Regis- `I wish I could just say to the dancers – do this movement because it’s really nice.’ But I stop myself and think – that’s cheating. I have to ask why? Once you’ve worked like that there’s no going back anymore.”After her time with the Pina Bausch Company, Meryl Tankard worked briefly with the Lindsay Kemp Company whose flamboyant and raucous ways she affectionately recalls. Returning to Australia in the mid-eighties Tankard began various projects – Echo Point, TV appearances in Dancing Daze and Robyn Archer’s Pack of Women, choreography for the AO’s Death in Venice and then, in 1989, she became Artistic Director of the Meryl Tankard Company where she has remained, based in Canberra, for the past four years.

With her own MTC Tankard produced works such as VX18504 and Banshee as well as works rescheduled for this year’s ADT season. Court of Flora- her Sitwellian animation of J.J. Grandville’s 19th century book of floral costumes, originally created for Canberra’s Spring Floriade festival- added a stylish whimsy to last February’s Womadelaide and in so doing was glimpsed by a larger incipient audience than ADT has had in many seasons.

The company’s current program – Nuti and Kikimora- has already toured to Europe, Indonesia and China although both Tankard and Lansac are quick to point out that with the new company both works have been considerably re-jigged. Originally created for five women they have been extended to include four male dancers as well. As Regis Lansac observes-

“The energies are different with new people and that affects the visuals. I wanted to change them – especially for Kikimora which is now less abstract with the central character performed by a dancer, she is not a slide projection anymore.”

Both Nuti and Kikimora epitomise Tankard’s work and the strength of her collaboration with Lansac. In Nuti, an evocation of the transcendental life-force in ancient Egyptian belief, the dancers move to the mesmeric ritualistic rhythms of Colin Offord’s soundscape, bathed in the projected photographic images and patterns prepared by Lansac. The projections mottle and decorate the naked forms of the dancers at the same time as they suggest the dominating hegemony of the culture. Similarly in Kikimora, the folkloric sorceress creates liberating havoc in a 19th century nursery surrounded by disturbing images of a golgotha of dolls.

Tankard’s company is called upon to do much more than dance, they are actors and vocalists as well and they are chosen for their originality. For her auditions Meryl Tankard asked performers to cross the stage as if it were a sacred space- “I said- I want YOU to do it, not you as a dancer. I could tell who was going to get in just from that exercise.”

“You always hope that you are going to find a really good dancer,” Tankard continues, “one with great technique, who can act, who can be funny and who will open themselves up and be natural- and that’s very hard to find. But then I always find that the good dancers are the best at this kind of work because they have the discipline to repeat things and they know the body so well.”

And just as Meryl Tankard is looking for versatility in her dancers so also is she looking for diversity in her audience- “We get people who are interested in the visual arts and in theatre. We have to keep telling people that ours isn’t the dance they think it is”

“It’s not like classical dance which has a certain vocabulary,” adds Lansac, “you know- a pirouette has to be done in such and such a way. You are watching a technical performance. Here you get emotionally involved because they are not only dancers but actors.”

“Sometimes when dancers are doing a step,” says Tankard, “I find I’m actually trying to get them to not do it so carefully or so well, not to look so acrobatic- because I want them to look like people. Sometimes I’m fighting against them being too athletic. It can look too easy.”

The company’s program has already had them performing in Botanic Park and later in the year at Saltram’s Winery as part of the Barossa Festival in October. In July they will unveil what is at present cryptically entitled, A New Work, and there will also be interstate projects -Orphee et Eurydice with the AO and Two Feet, performed as part of the twentieth anniversary of the Sydney Opera House. Next year the Tankard ADT will travel overseas as part of the company’s plan to tour widely.

Meryl Tankard’s appointment to the ADT has not been without controversy especially since the outgoing artistic director Leigh Warren has established his own company with dancers from the former ADT. But this, it seems, is a company with a history of traumatic departures as the followers of Jonathan Taylor still vehemently recall. The question of whether there’s room for two dance companies in Dodge City is still an open one. It may be, that with a variety of styles on offer, the dance audience will not only diversify but expand as well.

As it is, the Meryl Tankard ADT is very much up and running and Adelaide is quickly recognising what a coup her appointment has been. “We’ve received so much support at the moment I don’t feel any negativity,” says Tankard, “the
support and enthusiasm is much stronger than we expected. People even greet me in the street, that’s happened a number of times. You are much closer to your audience in a smaller place.”

The Adelaide Review, April 1993, p.35.

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