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Elizabeth Cameron Dalman's Fortuity marks 50 years of dance

A series of performances with the Mirramu Dance Company in Canberra will mark a milestone in contemporary dance.

Elizabeth Cameron Dalman had just returned from Adelaide when I spoke to her about Fortuity, a series of performances she and her Mirramu Dance Company will be giving in Canberra in May. I was curious about the title, and the fact that the performances were scheduled to take place in a variety of venues, including in three of Canberra's cultural institutions. As it turned out, Adelaide, Canberra and Fortuity are inextricably linked in Dalman's plans.

Dalman has the distinction of having founded Australia's first contemporary dance company, the Adelaide-based Australian Dance Theatre, affectionately known throughout the dance world as ADT. That was back in 1965. This year ADT celebrates its 50th anniversary, as does the Canberra Theatre, and in the days before our phone conversation Dalman had been filming and compiling the recollections of a group of dancers who performed with ADT during the 1960s and 1970s. Dalman will be returning to Adelaide in July to screen the film and present a work she showed in Canberra a few years ago, Sapling to Silver. Sapling to Silver, an autobiographical work examining Dalman's vibrant life in dance, will have a new name, L, for its Adelaide showing. L is the Roman numeral for 50. It is also the first letter of Liz, Dalman's nickname from her Adelaide days.

But what about Fortuity? Dalman, who has been working from her Mirramu Creative Arts Centre on the shores of Lake George, at Bungendore, since 1989, says she sees a fortuitous connection between the 50-year celebrations in Adelaide and Canberra. She wants to honour that connection. Both cities have been at the heart of her dance practice at certain times; Adelaide for 10 heady years between 1965 and 1975, Canberra since her move to Bungendore. Fortuity is the outcome of her celebratory planning for Canberra and will have slightly different formats in the various venues where it is shown.   

For performances in the Canberra Theatre Centre's Courtyard Theatre, Dalman's Mirramu Dance Company will be augmented by six guest artists from Taiwan - Dalman has been visiting and performing in Taiwan since the 1970s - and the format of the show will be similar to ADT's early performances. Dalman will act as a narrator and explain the context of and the inspiration behind the individual works, which will be drawn from the early repertoire of both ADT and Mirramu. Each Courtyard show will be a little different in order to cover as much repertoire as possible. 

"The Mirramu dancers are really enthusiastic about learning the early ADT repertoire," Dalman says. "It is important that younger dancers are able to embody this early repertoire and feel its beauty. Dance history is carried in the bodies of dancers. We have no film or video records from those first years of ADT." 

Performances in Canberra's cultural institutions will take a slightly different form and will reflect the courageous approach of ADT in its early years. Dance meant ballet, and only ballet, in those days and ADT, working in a very different mode, made the decision to move outside theatre spaces and take dance into outdoor and other non-traditional venues to attract new audiences for a new form of dance.

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At the National Library Dalman's company will present dance inspired by Leonard French's stained glass windows, which grace the Library's foyer space. At the National Gallery the dancers will perform in front of John Olsen's painting, Sydney Sun. A work called Landscape, choreographed by Dalman for ADT in 1967, was inspired by the works of Olsen and Russell Drysdale and Dalman takes particular pleasure in being able to perform in close proximity to Olsen's joyous work. For the National Portrait Gallery show Dalman and her dancers will improvise in front of selected portraits of women, a reference to a show Dalman made in 2000 called Two Faces.

Dalman acknowledges that there were difficult times for her in the 1970s. She was summarily dismissed from her position at ADT in 1975 and left Australia for Europe. She did not return for 10 years. But she is thrilled that ADT still exists. 

"It doesn't seem like 50 years have passed," she says. "But it is so exciting to think that Australia has had a contemporary dance company for that length of time. It is really something to be proud of. And it is also exciting that the company has had an eclectic approach to contemporary dance over that time. Each person who has led the company has brought something different to it. I took great pride in naming the company back in 1965. I especially wanted it to be called Australian Dance Theatre rather than be named for a particular director or choreographer. It was not for one person to possess."

Dalman's contribution to the development of professional dance in Australia is also something to celebrate. Few others had the persistence, determination and courage to ensure contemporary dance flourished so proudly and became an intrinsic part of Australian arts practice. 

Fortuity is on at the National Portrait Gallery, May 2, 11am-1pm, National Gallery of Australia, May 9, 11am; 1pm; and The Courtyard Studio, May 9-17.