Stepping up to challenge

Choreographer Liz Lea is a dancer in demand, and the pace shows no sign of abating in 2013, Jennifer Kingma writes

There can't be too many professional dancers who have been invited to travel to India to choreograph a deodorant commercial for television. But that's what dancer and choreographer Liz Lea recently squeezed in with her other commitments to Canberra's dance community.

"I was there five days and it was just far too much fun," she says.

"Someone I know in India rang me out of the blue because she was producing the advert for television. In India they're filming a lot of Bollywood films and adverts in Europe or the US but this director wanted to film in Mumbai with all the yellow taxis going past in the rain. So I had to choreograph some movement performed by very good dancers."

Lea has a long association with India but says her time working in Durban creating A Free Mind - inspired by the life and writings of the anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada, imprisoned alongside Nelson Mandela for 26 years - was her highlight of 2012.

"We took sections from Kathrada's letters and books,'' Lea says. ''I was commissioned by KZN DanceLink."

"I worked with their four dancers and six dancers from Flatfoot Dance Company to make A Free Mind and Kathrada attended the performances."


With her interest in cross-cultural contemporary dance styles, which includes the fusion of classical Indian dance and martial arts, Lea is also artistic director of Liz Lea and Co and Canberra Dance Theatre and an associate director of QL2 Centre for Youth Dance.

The multi-tasking Lea has plans for 2013, Canberra's centenary year.

Her work as choreographer in residence at CSIRO Discovery will continue.

"It's a non-specific post and tied in with my bird research for InFlight," Lea says.

The science of flight has been a theme in Lea's work and research for some time and she will create a solo for herself titled Kapture, examining the behaviour of trapped or caged birds. She will also create Magnificus Magnificus, a solo for indigenous dancer Tammi Gissell, about the red-tailed black cockatoo.

"I found out there are a number of different types of cockatoo," Lea says. "Tammi is from Bourke and the red-tailed black cockatoo is native to that region and we'll be going there this month for research. The two solos, Kapture and Magnificus Magnificus, will premiere at The Street Theatre in October."

Gissell, an independent performer and performance theorist from Muruwari Country, and a graduate of the University of Western Sydney, was course coordinator at the National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association until 2011. She was nominated for an Australian Dance Award for her outstanding performance in Eleo Pomare's Gin.Woman.Distress. She was also awarded an inaugural Guillermo Keys-Arenas Scholarship to create A Velikovsky Affair, which premiered at NIDA Parade Theatre in 2011.

"When InFlight premieres in May it is literally the 85th anniversary to the day that Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm took off from California on the beginning of their trans-pacific flight," Lea says.

Installation artist Naomi Ota, of Melbourne, supported by Inspiring Australia, will do the set for InFlight. The lighting designer is Karen Norris, who lit Bangarra Dance Theatre's Terrain. The dancers are Alison Plevey, Miranda Wheen, Marnie Palomares and Melanie FaydherbedeMaudave.

Mixing her professional and community dance work is something Lea enjoys.

As artistic director of Canberra Dance Theatre, she is understandably pleased that the new dance studios which opened last year will be fitted with a sprung floor.

CDT's plans for 2013 include the continuation of community dance classes, performances at the National Gallery of Australia for the CDT GOLD dancers, and a new work created by Stephanie Burridge for the 35th anniversary of CDT this year.

CDT will hold a dance summer school from January 28 to February 2, and a dance and drumming summer school on February 2-3.

The "GOLDIES", aged 55 to 80, plan to visit England in 2014. They are fundraising to cover the cost of their tour, during which they will perform in small theatres and festivals.

In August, Lea will be curating a dance and science festival at CSIRO called DANscienCE.

"We'll be bringing dance artists from hopefully every state together with people working with cognitive science, ecology, physiotherapy, mature-age dancing, and my bird ecology," Lea says.

"It's generating quite a bit of interest. There will be workshops, talks and performances.

"I'm running five lectures at CSIRO Discovery [February 2 to March 16]. One on going to country, one on fluid forms with scientists from ADFA - how air and water is affected by movement - one on flying facts and one on InFlight and another on "turn-out" in dancers." Turn-out is a measure of the external rotation of the hip joint.

Dancer Natalie Ayton, who graduated with Lea from London Contemporary Dance School in 1995, has relocated to Sydney. Ayton will travel to Canberra intermittently to assist Lea part-time in 2013.

"Natalie is busy with her projects but she will be rehearsal director depending on what's needed,'' Lea says.

"She'll create a work for our special needs dancers and work with Art4Agriculture, which is where fibreglass cows are brought into a school and we learn all about cows and decorate the cow which I hope will be part of National Science Week. Then we'll make a work for a blind actress and a young dancer inspired by the work and life of Marie Curie and a work for the GOLDS called Windup about the wind turbines on Lake George.''

Ayton has broad-ranging experience as a dancer, teacher and choreographer.

"I worked in London for Matthew Bourne, in Wayne McGregor's Random Dance Company, with Retina Dance Company and with a physical theatre company called Gecko for quite a long time," Ayton says.

"I also worked with Candoco Dance Company. A lot of that work has been integrated work with people with a disability and community. I've recently been with a company in Sydney called Sunnyfield, again for people with intellectual disability.

"Bringing professional dancers, young dancers and community together means that you have to be as professional and as clear as possible but also as open-minded as possible and draw out particular skills, but also communicating so that they understand you're not trying to force them into something.

"The perception around community dance is that it's never going to be professionally produced and presented."

Ayton and Lea agree that this is a misconception because often community dance can be "stunning", but in the end the most important thing is for the participants to have a positive experience.

For further information: Canberra Dance Theatre 0435 025 365 or canberradancetheatre.org