Australian contemporary dance icon Meryl Tankard is back in town this week for the Adelaide premiere of her internationally acclaimed dance work The Oracle.
If contemporary dance makes you feel nervous and confused, here’s a tip: relax and go on the ride.
Contemporary dance usually doesn’t have a narrative and there’s no right or wrong perception. It’s similar to abstract painting, where the elements of the work (movement, sound and light) are the expression and what it communicates is left to the viewer’s own interpretation.
But once you know that Tankard’s The Oracle was inspired by the paintings of Scandinavian artist Odd Nerdrum, who was in turn inspired by Rembrandt and Caravaggio, you will get it.
“I was inspired by Nerdrum’s paintings of really dark, desolate human beings in a landscape that looks like it could be the end of the world,” explains Tankard. “They were all very simple and pagan, where something dies and something else is born. It made me think of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.”
And soloist Paul White is the perfect as the struggling human form. Yes, this choreography has only one dancer, but as The Oracle has toured the world receiving rave reviews since 2009, White has certainly proved as captivating as a large company of dancers.
“When I started working with the Stravinsky music I thought it would be an incredible challenge to see if one man could handle music which is so powerful,” says Tankard. “I had never worked with Paul, but I had seen him on stage. I found him really inspiring to work with. He loves a challenge and if somebody wants a challenge I love to challenge them.”
Audiences should be warned here that they might be challenged, too, by some nudity in The Oracle, but it’s not about gratuitous titillation. Nothing Tankard has ever done has ever been that tacky.
“The Oracle is quite a dark piece,” she explains.
It’s about the forces of nature, man’s strengths and vulnerabilities, inevitable futures and the sacredness of the earth.
White’s performance displays strength, grace and vulnerability that is disturbing, exquisite and frightening. “It’s a very physically and emotionally demanding piece.”
Props are limited to lighting (Damien Cooper and Matt Cox), costume (Meryl Tankard), set and video (Regis Lansac), and these are used to great effect as White duets with his own shadow and digital manipulations of his body in kaleidoscopic patterns, a swirling circular skirt or a dark velvet cloak.
It has been a long time between Meryl Tankard shows for Adelaide audiences. Since retiring in 1999 from her post as director of Australian Dance Theatre, she has been based in Sydney, working freelance in film and projects including the 2000 Sydney Olympics opening ceremony.
To Adelaide and the ADT, she not only brought her unique edge and courage as a choreographer, but also her experience as a dancer with the Australian Ballet and Pina Bausch’s Wuppertaler Tanztheater in Germany.
So what was it like working with the great Pina Bausch?
“Very intense and very demanding, which was wonderful but I couldn’t do it for the rest of my life. When I worked with her I felt like I gave her everything. We worked until 10pm every night, six days per week.
“The work was very emotional and very political. I got homesick. I missed the blue sky and the freedom. It was hard to leave but I wanted to create my own work and put all that intensity into my own choreography.”
And she did. While at the helm of ADT, she created the works Furioso (1993), Aurora (1994), Possessed (1995), Rasa (1996), Seulle (1997) and Inuk (1997), and toured extensively worldwide, pioneering dance as an export.
“We opened the doors internationally for Australian dance,” she says. “We were the first dance company to be invited to perform at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York. We were ahead of our time. Now everybody is touring. It’s the best thing you can do to publicise the country.”
Tankard is also working on a large feature film, but can’t say what it is just yet.
“I love film because it allows you to take the audience even closer to what people are feeling,” she explains. “I like very small movements and there is something about zooming in on a very small fragment of the body. As well as dance, I also love talking and speech and humour.
“But The Oracle is pure dance. I think Adelaide will enjoy it.”
The Oracle will be performed at the Dunstan Playhouse from August 20 to 23.
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